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Jones hoping to turn the tide

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The water park looked so fun, so exciting. All those rides and inner tubes. And the water. Look at all the water!

Cullen Jones was 5 or 6 years old when he saw the aqua Disneyland at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa. His mom, Debra, didn’t like the idea. She didn’t care if the family traveled from New Brunswick, N.J. Cullen was too little. He was even small for his age. He didn’t know how to swim. His dad, Ronald, was all for it, though. “He’s strong enough,” he said.

Little Cullen got on the inner tube at the top of the slide and promised his dad he wouldn’t let go. The inner tube flew down the slippery slope and Cullen laughed all the way. But at the bottom, something happened. He flipped upside down. He still held onto the inner tube.

And he passed out. He was given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR. He made it.

It is 18 years later, and Jones is a world champion, a world-record holder and stands a good shot at becoming the second African-American male to make a U.S. Olympic swim team. Why?

“When I came to,” he said, “the next thing I said was, ‘What’s the next ride I’m getting on?’ ”

Within the week, his mother enrolled him in swim lessons. Taking the torch from his mom, Cullen Jones, 24, is teaching inner-city minorities such as himself how to save themselves. He has joined forces with the “Make a Splash” initiative to teach them how to swim.

“Especially get more African-Americans and Latins into the water,” he said here at the U.S. Olympic Team Media Summit last month.

Approximately six out of 10 African-American children are unable to swim, nearly twice as many as their Caucasian counterparts, according to a national, first-of-its-kind survey released last week by USA Swimming. Similarly, 56 percent of Hispanic and Latino children are unable to swim.

The survey of 1,772 children ages 6 to 16 was conducted in six U.S. metropolitan areas. It showed parental influence is the major contributing factor in children’s ability or inability to swim.

Making a difference

What Jones and Make a Splash do is hold free lessons at YMCAs and work with schools to hold physical-education class in swimming pools instead of gyms.

“The kids are so excited,” Jones said. “You ask any kid, do they want to get in the water, and most of them, if they haven’t had a traumatic incident already, they’re ready and rarin’ to go. They have no fear. That’s the greatest asset to us.”

In Colorado, Make a Splash offers children’s lessons at the Colorado Springs Downtown YMCA for $5 a family from Monday to Thursday. Make a Splash will also hold a Water Safety Day at the Bob L. Burger Recreation Center in Lafayette on Saturday.

Don’t think it’s not needed here. Steve Hadley has coached or taught swimming in the Denver area for 56 years, from John F. Kennedy High School to the University of Denver’s summer program. He said a program such as Jones’ is badly needed in Colorado.

“I’ll be honest,” Hadley said. “There are swimming pools around the Denver area that go vacant in the middle of the day. That’s terrible.”

Hadley said it’s often a money issue that keeps minorities out of the pool. He teaches swimming at the Arvada YMCA and said six group lessons are $45 and private lessons are $20 for 30 minutes. Jones, though, scoffs at the notion that money is a barrier for African-American kids.

“How much are Air Jordans retailing for?” he said of the basketball shoe with the high price tag.

Opportunity is the only barrier standing in the way of the U.S. getting more minority athletes in swimming, Jones said. The numbers are minute. In Colorado, Hadley said he has seen African-Americans make up only about 2 percent of competitive swimmers, with most of those swimming for Denver’s George Washington High School.

Maybe if Jones makes a splash in the Olympics in Beijing this August, that could change. He will not be the first. Many casual fans don’t know the first African-American male swimmer was Anthony Erwin, who won the gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Few know because Erwin was only half black, had a very light complexion and didn’t enjoy discussing race. Jones does. Born in the Bronx, he grew to 6-feet-5 and laughs off the questions about which basketball team he plays for.

“I go, ‘You could never believe what I do. You can’t even guess,’ ” he said. “And it’s everything underneath the sun besides swimming.”

Coming out on top

Jones blossomed on the world scene when he won the world 50 freestyle title last summer in Melbourne, Australia, and helped the U.S. 400 freestyle relay team set a world record. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what it’s like being a black swimmer.

In a subtle jab at Erwin, Jones said: “There are a lot of people who don’t want that pressure. They just want to sit back. They want to perform, get their gold medal and live on with their life. But with an incident like that happening to me, it’s very close to my heart. And I have no problem talking about it.”

It hasn’t always been easy. His mother would hear other mothers complain, “I can’t believe he beat my son so bad.” But his mother reacted to Cullen before she did the other mothers. She’d grab him by the neck and say, “You know what? They’re really upset. They’re upset because you’re different. Sometimes different scares people.”

That pushed Jones to Olympic levels. So did a fan’s blog on Collegeswimming.com after he won the 2004 Atlantic Coast Conference title for North Carolina State and bombed at the Olympic trials. The blog read, “Cullen Jones is a choke artist. He doesn’t swim at international swims and no one should pay attention to him. He is a nobody.”

In his first international race, in Izmir, Turkey, he dropped half a second off his 50 time. Yet no matter what he swims at the Olympic trials in Omaha in July, no matter if he medals in Beijing, to hundreds of minorities whom he helped learn to swim, Cullen Jones is still a winner.

SOURCE: Denver Post

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Written by Symphony

May 8, 2008 at 11:46 pm

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