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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Cullen Jones still working to get kids in pool

By Jim Caple

As schools let out and the weather warms, learning to swim becomes increasingly important. Ask Cullen Jones. He's an Olympic gold medalist swimmer, but he nearly drowned at a water park when he was five years old.

"I know what it feels like to be in that situation," he said. "I know what it feels like to get in the water."

Jones was enjoying an afternoon at a waterpark with his parents when his father, Ronald, led him down the largest slide. Cullen followed but he flipped over on his inner tube when he hit the bottom and sank. He passed out and needed to be fully resuscitated. He said his mother, Debra, enrolled him in swimming lessons within a week. Those lessons eventually led him to an Olympic podium though he wasn't comfortable in the water right away.

"It took a while," Jones said. "I remember parts of [the near-drowning] and she fills in the rest. She says it took a good six months to get me into the water and feel comfortable and have fun."

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 people a day drown in the United States, with one in five younger than 14. African-American children drown at a rate three times higher than Caucasians, which is partially explained by a survey conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation and University of Memphis: 73 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic/Latino children cannot swim.

Jones is African-American and is using his Olympic fame to get more children in the pool for lessons. He is working with the USA Swimming Foundation/Phillips 66 "Make a Splash" water safety program to increase swim lesson participation.

"I get messages daily, 'Hey I just started swimming, I'm the only black person on team,' or 'I'm the only Asian, the only Hispanic,'" Jones said. "It's cool to be a role model and that people care what I think. ... 'Make A Splash' really keeps a tally of the kids we touch and the numbers are showing that kids are getting into swimming. It's great."

The lessons certainly paid off for Jones. He won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where he swam on the 4x100 free team and will swim again at next week's trials to earn a spot for London.

Jones said it was a little difficult being the only African-American swimmer in his group growing up but that his community was also a melting pot. He does remember an incident after he won a junior Olympic meet around the age of 15.

"A lady came by and she said to my parents, 'Shouldn't he be playing basketball?'" Jones recalled. "My mom, who is the nice, calm woman, turned around and was about to go off, but my dad grabbed her and said, 'No Debra, calm down.'

"I'll never forget what Dad said to me. He said, 'The reason she said that is because you beat her son.'"

That, he said, provided him with sufficient motivation to excel, and now he wants to provide motivation to others.

"It's really about getting kids to understand the importance of learning to swim," he said. "Not necessarily to follow in my footsteps but just to get in the water."