Saving lives in the water with Olympian Cullen Jones

Olympian and former gold medallist Cullen Jones is an ambassador for the Make a Splash Tour. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Cullen Jones grew up in the Bronx, NY, and only learned to swim after almost drowning at the age of five. Now, he’s the only African-American to break a long-course world record in swimming, and a man officials in the sport are hoping will have a “Tiger Woods Effect” in the pool.

A Jones-inspired spike in popularity would be fantastic for the sport, but inspiring minorities and kids in urban neighbourhoods to learn to swim is an issue of life-or-death importance. In America, drownings is the second leading cause of death for children under 14 and is most common in minority communities. A recent study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis revealed that 70 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Hispanic children can’t swim. And when you consider that African-Americans drown at three times the rate of Caucasians, it’s easy to see why Jones’s impact could extend far beyond ensuring a greater number of minority swimmers at future Olympics.

In addition to training for Rio, Jones is a key ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Tour, which vows to teach one million kids in impoverished neighbourhoods how to swim. He spoke with me by phone from California, where he’s preparing for the U.S. Olympic trials in June to talk about the steps he’s taking to promote swimming in the black community and ultimately save lives.

Donnovan Bennett You’ve been heavily involved in the Make a Splash Tour. Why is that something that is important to you?

Cullen Jones At the age of five, I almost drowned. My mom didn’t know how to swim. My dad somewhat knew how to swim. We went to an amusement park in Pennsylvania and I decided I wanted to get on the biggest rides that my dad went on. So I ended up going on this ride, flipping upside down. What’s important [to note] about this is that I was entirely supervised: My dad was there, my mom was there, there were lifeguards there, and I was still able to go under water. So many times when I talk to children, I always hear them saying, “I was fooling around and something went wrong.” My story is important to tell because I was fully supervised–it can happen with people watching. That’s why it’s so important for children to have swim lessons so they are at least acclimated to the water and they know how to be safe around the water. I could have been part of the statistics we are trying to fight now.

DB What was that experience like?

CJ I push the limits now–as my job is doing something that almost took my life–but I still vividly remember what it felt like to not be able to get air, to be helpless. It was very hard on my family. My mom got me into swim lessons, but it took about three teachers for me to be comfortable around the water again. So when I teach classes, I understand that. A big part is being patient with [kids] as many of them have had some sort of traumatic issue with the water. I see myself in them. So when I’m trying to teach kids, I understand that there is a learning curve and they are going to have to trust me. My mom is now getting into the water and learning how to swim. So it’s all about the teaching.

DB When you almost drowned, how were you saved?

CJ The lifeguards got me out of the water and had to resuscitate me. I was completely unconscious. Luckily they were swift, because after about 30 seconds children have brain damage, and many times they don’t come back from that. I was one of the lucky ones that was able to come back, and then my mom was like, “Never again.”

DB Many people get to the point where they can tread water and then say, “Ok, I’m good.” Why did you continue to pursue swimming past that point?

CJ Honestly, I just enjoyed the sport. We talk about the drownings because of how big of an issue that it is, but when I’m with kids, one of the first questions I ask is, “How many of you like to be in the water?” There is not one hand that doesn’t go up. When it’s hot outside, the first thing kids want to do is jump in the cold water and play. Fortunately we don’t have to fight with them to get into water, so we just have to get the swim lessons so they understand what to do in the water. For me, I just loved it. I had great friends as teammates so I just kept doing it. Then I started getting competitive with it. My dad was a basketball player so he wanted me to be a basketball player but swimming took hold. When I was 15, I had to make that decision.

DB Coming up through the ranks did you have tough times? I assume you didn’t see people who looked like you at the majority of your meets.

CJ You’d be assuming correctly [laughs]. For me, [it was] just [about] finding a team that I felt comfortable on. I grew up on a mainly minority team until I was about 14, 15 years old, and then I had to make a decision where to go. I ended up swimming out of a Jewish community centre where I was the only African-American on the team. My teammates were awesome but I did have some moments. When I wasn’t fast, I didn’t have a problem. It was when I started getting faster in high school swimming and club swimming I started hearing it. A women actually said, “Shouldn’t you be playing basketball? Why are you here?” My mom heard it and she is the hot-headed one. My dad, who is the level-headed one, said, “The reason she is mad is because you beat her son. You don’t need to let that stop you from doing what you want to do.” That’s been my mantra ever since. My parents where my rock and I loved swimming so I wasn’t going to stop because someone was mad that I beat their son.

DB What are some of the key factors that have kept minorities from swimming?

CJ USA swimming has worked with the University of Memphis to get to the bottom of it. The three reasons that they found are exactly what I hear from parents. The No. 1 reason is fear. No. 2 is [lack of] parental backing. No. 3 is physical appearance. So when it comes to physical appearance, it is ladies with their hair, guys wearing small suits not feeling comfortable. And I get it! My mom is African-American. She gets her hair done and as soon as it touches water, whatever she has paid for is gone. I get it! But the biggest thing I tell ladies is once you learn how to swim, you never forget–so take a summer and learn. The second one is parental backing, parents not pushing it on their kids as a life skill. If the parents aren’t doing it, the kids are unlikely to do it. There is a 98-percent chance that if the parent knows how to swim, the children will learn how to swim. If the parent doesn’t know how to swim, it drops down to an 11-percent chance the child will learn how to swim. The other is fear. Parents project their fears onto their children. They see water like fire where they say, “stay away,” [and don’t learn] the safe ways to engage with water.

DB What do you think when people bring up bone-density and buoyancy issues in relation to African-Americans swimming?

CJ I’ve been to the Olympics twice–hoping to go for my third. I can tell you I can’t float [laughs]. Buoyancy doesn’t matter in swimming. When you are talking about being able to float as a safety precaution, sure. But the most important thing in swimming is learning how to propel yourself through the water. Floating is important, don’t get me wrong, but you can still learn how to swim without learning how to float.

DB It is a lot easier to get kids excited about swimming when you’re wearing a medal around your neck. Are you aware of the fact effect being the first African-American to break a word record has on the you teach?

CJ You know, honestly, it being Black History Month, this is the moment where I’m able to reflect a little bit. Normally I’m so focused on 2016 and being in Rio and winning more medals that I get caught up. This month I get more messages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter saying, “Can you answer these questions? You’re my Black History Month project.” For kids to have the choices they have to depict somebody and they pick me, it is a very humbling feeling. I sit back and say, “wow, that is such an amazing accomplishment,” but I know I’m not done yet.

DB Is there a fellowship between black swimmers?

CJ Fur sure. There are more now with [NCAA standouts] Lia Neal and Simone Manuel. When I first started, it was pretty much Maritza Correia and I. Now we’re seeing more. It’s great to see more African-Americans find success in the sport and stick with it through college, where people normally fall off.

DB Is there one moment at a Make a Splash Tour event that sticks out to you?

CJ Absolutely. In 2009, I was racing to make the World [Championship] team. Within that same week of me racing in Shreveport, Louisiana, seven young black children drowned. And they drowned because they were jumping in one after the other to save the kid that was struggling before them. They were just trying to save each other when none of them could swim. There first thought was to save their friend. That year with the Make a Splash initiative I was able to go to Shreveport and visit with some of the parents. It was difficult because they had lost so much. That is something that will never leave my mind is seeing parents who have lost their children. That is the point of the Make a Splash initiative–trying to get in front of something like that so that parents know. That is what drives me.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.