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Cullen Jones Makes Waves

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by Matthew Futterman
Wall Street Journal

Perched atop a starting block in his black, full-body racing suit, Cullen Jones waits for the signal, then switches off all thought for the next 22 seconds, letting his body tear through 50 meters of flat blue water without a single breath.

“When I’m up there now,” says Mr. Jones, “it’s got to be all about Cullen.”

And yet, as hard as he tries, it never will be. For most of the 1,200 swimmers at the Olympic trials next week in Omaha, Neb., only their individual hopes are on the line.

But when Mr. Jones competes for the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races, he feels as if he will also be swimming for millions of black children in the U.S. whose health and welfare are at stake. Mr. Jones, 24 years old, is a key figure in the effort to combat a longstanding problem: the high drowning rate among black children, which is more than three times the rate of white children.

In recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control have issued new warnings about the problem. In 2005, there were 3,582 unintentional drownings in the U.S., according to the CDC. More than one in four fatal drownings were children 14 and younger.

No black swimmer has dedicated himself to this issue more than Mr. Jones, who last year was hailed the second-fastest swimmer in the world when he took silver in the 50-meter freestyle race at the world championships. Now, after an up-and-down winter, he must go up against proven Olympic veterans in races where only the top two winners get to go to Beijing.

If he gets to Beijing and excels there, Mr. Jones will provide the African-American community with a champion swimmer it can hold up as a symbol of the absurdity of old biases about blacks and swimming. Anthony Ervin’s gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle race in Sydney didn’t resonate in that way; he is one-quarter African-American.

The outdated stereotype remains powerful. Mr. Jones said members of his own family still ask him why he chose the sport.

“They’ll say, ‘Don’t you know blacks don’t swim?'” Mr. Jones says.

That thinking, combined with limited access to pools in poorer areas, has long jeopardized the safety of millions of African-American children. A study conducted this winter by researchers from the University of Memphis found that African-American and Hispanic children were six times more likely than Caucasian children to grow up in families where both the parents and the children don’t know how to swim. And role models matter: In African-American families where parents can’t swim, 91% of the children won’t learn. In Hispanic and white families the number is closer to 70%.

And therein lies real risk. “What is frightening is that there are a number of communities that spend time in and around the water without knowing how to swim,” says Julie Gilchrist, an epidemiologist with the CDC. “Just because, quote-unquote, blacks don’t swim, that doesn’t mean they don’t spend time at the pool or at the lake or go on vacation at the seashore.”

Mr. Jones, born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Irvington, N.J., is perfectly suited to become a transitional figure. Long before he became a champion, taking a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle relay at last year’s world championships, Mr. Jones almost became a statistic.

On a summer day when he was 5 years old, he went down an inner-tube ride at a Pennsylvania amusement park without knowing how to swim. The inner-tube flipped. He became trapped underneath it and didn’t emerge until his father and a lifeguard jumped in to save him.

Mr. Jones learned to swim after that, competing with a swim club in Newark, N.J., then attending St. Benedict’s Prep, also in Newark. This led to a scholarship at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Mr. Jones tells his story to anyone who will listen, arguing that swimming should be as important a part of childhood as running. The story and his decision to make swimming safety a top priority have attracted a series of sponsorship deals from a corporate sports machine that loves to seize on an athlete whose efforts are about something bigger than the fastest finish.

Mr. Jones’s sponsorships with Nike, Bank of America, Toyota and Johnson & Johnson, now total more than $1 million, according to his agent, making him one of the country’s wealthiest swimmers, even before he has made the U.S. team.

“We’re confident he can be a breakout star and inspire an entire generation of new swimmers,” says Joe Goode, a spokesman for Bank of America who oversees the company’s affiliation with 12 potential Olympians.

Mr. Jones moved to the Huntersville Family and Fitness Center near Charlotte, N.C., in April to train with Dave Marsh, who won 12 NCAA championships at Auburn University and produced more than 20 Olympians, including gold medalists John Hargus and Kristy Coventry.

His local celebrity made families invite him for meals and to go wake-surfing from their motorboats. Mr. Marsh recently found his 8-year-old daughter uttering his name in her sleep.

Last week Mr. Jones jumped in the pool with a class of 12-year-olds to show them a few tricks, such as propelling himself through the water without moving his arms or his legs, just flapping his feet.

“He tells us we can go the whole length of the pool or even to the Olympics if we want to,” says Ellington Green, 12, of Charlotte.

Ellington’s parents, Michael Green and Cheryl Brown, grew up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s, when the pools and beaches were segregated. Now they take extra pride in watching their kids root for an African-American swimmer.

Ms. Brown, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., recalls swimming as a girl and idolizing a great young swimmer named Katie Ball, who was white. “I wanted to be just like her,” Ms. Brown says. “There just was never going to be the opportunity for it.”

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Written by Symphony

June 27, 2008 at 4:50 pm

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