Olympic swimmer in town to share message about swimming safety

Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 11:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 11:44 p.m.

Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones has a compelling life-and-death story to tell that should resonate with all parents, among all races.

It began in 1989 on a warm, summer Pennsylvania afternoon at a family water park where a 5-year-old African-American boy who didn't know how to swim almost drowned right in front of his father and a lifeguard.

All these years later, Jones still remembers struggling under the water, thinking he was going to die.

“Even now, my coach will have us doing some stuff under the water, and sometimes I'll have flashbacks,” he said. “It's not something you'll ever forget.”

Jones almost drowned in what appeared to be a harmless situation, with plenty of adult supervision.

He slid down a slide on an inner tube and flipped over as he hit the water. Unable to swim, he went under.

“The lifeguard had to come and get me,” Jones said. “I passed out and had to be resuscitated. I almost drowned.

“What's so wild is I was fully supervised. Kids drown when people are sitting right there. My dad was right there and he almost watched me drown.”

A few days after the incident, Jones' mother enrolled him in swimming classes.

“She told them, ‘I'm uncomfortable in the water. I don't want my son to ever feel uncomfortable in the water like I do,' “ Jones said.

He hasn't. Not only did he learn to swim, he eventually became very good at it.

Less than 20 years after his near-drowning experience, Jones won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics as a member of the U.S. 4x100 relay team. He is only the second African-American to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. He is only the third African-American to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team.

It's quite a story, and Jones is in Gainesville to share it with the many minority children (and everyone else) who will be in attendance tonight at the Gainesville Sports Commission's 24th Annual Meeting presented by Shands Health Care.

Jones' story comes with a well-defined message: Learn how to swim, it could save your life.

“(My story) is something I open up with with the kids,” he said. “I tell them, this is something that you can learn to do. It's like riding a bike. My mom got me in swimming lessons right after I almost drowned, and it changed my life.

“It's a life skill. That's what my big message is with the African-American community. It can save your child's life.”

Jones is spreading his message in Gainesville on behalf of Make a Splash, a national organization initiated by USA Swimming and the USA Swim Foundation whose goal is to influence our nation's children, especially minorities, to learn how to swim.

“It's kind of been my life's work outside swimming laps and staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool,” said Jones, a former North Carolina State star who still lives and trains in Raleigh, N.C. “I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It's a really important message and it's a way for me to give back to a sport that has been so good to me.”

Jones said there also is a sense of urgency about what he's doing because of the large number of African-American children in the U.S. who don't know how to swim. He said recent studies have shown that almost 70 percent of African-American children in this country have little or no ability to swim.

“In African-American families, a lot of times the parents don't know how to swim and they pass that fear of the water along to their children,” he said. “Working with Make a Splash has opened my eyes in so many different ways.

“There's a 90-percent chance that if the parents don't know how to swim, the children will not learn. And that's in all races.”

Jones said Make a Splash, which was established in 2007, has influenced more than one million children to learn how to swim.

He said he hopes to influence many children (and parents) in Gainesville. His message will be reinforced by the City of Gainesville Parks and Recreation Department, which has a learn-to-swim program aimed at teaching more minority children how to swim.

Jones said it starts with education. And it starts with his own story of winning an Olympic gold medal in swimming after nearly drowning when he was five years old.

“It feels good to know I'm doing something,” he said. “Hopefully, it's a butterfly effect. Maybe one day you'll teach a child to learn how to swim, and they'll teach someone else and it will keep going like that until we see change.”

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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