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Olympian Cullen Jones wants to change swimming stereotype

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones teaches kids how to swim during the National Water Safety Campaign. About 70 percent of African-American children have little or no ability to swim.
Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones teaches kids how to swim during the National Water Safety Campaign. About 70 percent of African-American children have little or no ability to swim. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — Almost everywhere he goes, Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones is reminded of a tragic fate that was nearly his own.

Though he was the first African-American to set a world record in swimming and participated in the 4x100 freestyle relay with Michael Phelps and Jason Lezak that clinched a gold medal in the 2008 Games in Beijing, Jones, 25, said he isn't a natural.

In one of his first encounters with the water, Jones, then 5, nearly drowned. Now he's intent on changing this harrowing statistic: About 70 percent of African-American children have little or no ability to swim. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2005 that fatal unintentional drowning rates for 5- to 14-year-old African-Americans are 2.6 times higher than those for Caucasians of the same ages.

Jones teamed with USA Swimming in 2008 to be part of a child-focused water safety initiative. On Tuesday, he visited the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Washington, the site of the June 23 drowning of 6-year-old Yiana Ballard.

"It hurts my heart to go to every different city and hear about kids drowning," Jones said. "Only two words can change that, and it's swim lessons."

An American Health Institute study showed that swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by up to 88 percent. The threshold for water safety, Jones said, is the ability to swim 20 meters.

With more than 250 swimming centers in 42 states, USA Swimming has provided lessons to 375,000 kids since the "Make A Splash" initiative launched in 2007.

The pools agree to give a certain percentage of their lessons free, and in turn are eligible for grants from the program. About $110,000 in grants, largely funded by ConocoPhillips, have been distributed this year.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore received a $4,000 grant this year, and was able to offer two-hour lessons at its Owings Mills facility to a predominantly black community. That kind of exposure to the water, said Bill Kirkner, the aquatics director, is sufficient for basic water safety skills.

"The problem of not knowing how to swim is largely tied to whether the family swims," Kirkner said. "If mom still doesn't feel comfortable, she's not going to take the kids to the pool to practice."

Crucial to the Baltimore project was that 45 percent of participants' families attended the lessons. Such parental involvement, a 2008 study conducted by the University of Memphis found, is vital to a child's success in the water.

The study indicates that "fear of drowning" and lack of parental encouragement are the leading factors in inability to swim. So while USA Swimming has made significant strides in overcoming the financial impediment to swimming, obstacles still abound.

"What I tell parents is, it's important to not project their own fears onto their kids," Jones said.

On Wednesday, Jones gave lessons to six children, including a girl who at first hesitated to even slip her foot into the water. By the end of the session, comforted by Jones' presence and simple instructions, she was jumping off the block into the deep end.

"She was definitely afraid because her mother's boyfriend threw her into the pool and expected her to swim back to the wall," Jones said. "Luckily she did — she didn't have to be saved — but it scared her . . . That's what you see so much of."

That's the type of traumatic experience that troubles local residents such as Sarah Skinner, whose daughter works at Turkey Thicket and whose grandson was taking lessons on Wednesday.

"One of the things people used to do — they would say, 'Well, just jump in,'" Skinner said. "That isn't true with everybody. Everybody's level of fear is different."

"The idea of putting your head beneath that water . . . that's another world," she added.

Even at a community swimming center devastated by a death in its own pool, however, residents continue to swim, determined to learn a potentially life-saving skill.

Despite the high demand at Turkey Thicket, however, Jones remains concerned that many African-Americans have accepted the racist stereotype that they can't swim.

"African-Americans are not getting in the pool, and that's what we're here to change," he said.

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