Cullen Jones: Saving lives one stroke at a time
By Jerome Solomon, Houston Chronicle
His strokes appear effortless. Smooth. Strong. Athletic.
You would think he was born to swim. That is hardly the case.
Cullen Jones is a world-class athlete, thanks to thousands of hours of hard work in the swimming pool. Years ago, however, the Olympic gold medalist nearly became a sad statistic because he was in the water and didn’t know how to swim.
Jones was 5 when he went cascading down a slide at a water park, clinging for dear life to an inner tube. The next thing he knew, he was asking his parents which ride he could go on next.
He doesn’t remember the mouth-to-mouth, CPR part of the story.
It would have been a senseless death. Jones was fortunate to survive. Many others don’t make it.
Already this year, 11 children have drowned in Houston. All were under the age of 12. More than 30 children died in drownings in the Houston area last year, up from 22 in 2007.
This has to stop.
“This is something that is preventable,” Jones said. “The economy? We’re working on it. Pollution? We’re working on it. Those are problems that are much (more complicated). The drowning rate? This is something we can change. Go get swim lessons.”
The problem is more significant in minority communities. USA Swimming’s research shows that 60 percent of African-American children and 56 percent of Latino children do not know how to swim, compared to 31 percent of white children.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fatal drowning rate for black children ages 5 to 14 is three times higher than for white children of the same age.
Jones, who on Wednesday spoke to nearly 1,000 students at Aldine ISD’s Johnson Elementary School, is in a unique position to make a difference in those numbers. Even now — nine months after he claimed Olympic gold and three years after being part of his first world-record relay effort — when Jones takes to the swimming pool, as he did later Wednesday at MacArthur High School, he elicits double takes.
Typically, world-class swimmers don’t look like him. Tall and handsome, maybe, but not African-American.
Yes, we can swim.
White men can’t jump is a movie title (and a joke). But Al Campanis isn’t the only one who has thought blacks can’t swim.
The odd looks Jones received from whites at swim meets when he was younger are nothing compared to the discouraging words he heard from blacks when they found out he had set his sights on being a swimmer. With that lanky (6-foot-5) athletic build, the Bronx native, who grew up in New Jersey, was supposed to want to be Michael Jordan, not swim against Michael Phelps.
Jones has reached the top level in the sport. At last year’s Beijing Games, he joined Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale to set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle relay, making Jones the second African-American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. (Anthony Ervin shared the gold in the 50 freestyle in 2000.)
Less than 2 percent of USA Swimming’s nearly 252,000 participants are African-American.
Jones sees more blacks joining the sport as a mere side note to the more important issue of minority children learning to swim.
“This is not going to be something that happens overnight, because I’m working against generations of a stigma,” he said. “The problem isn’t necessarily the kids not knowing how to swim; it’s the parents. Parents might not see it as being a life skill that children need to learn.”
With USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash with Cullen Jones” program, sponsored by ConocoPhillips, children around the country, including some at MacArthur this summer, will receive free swimming lessons. Houston was the first stop on a six-city tour to spread the message.
“I learned how to swim and have fun in the water,” said third-grader Jacob Garza, one of five Johnson students who spent nearly an hour in the pool with Jones. “I think it’s awesome to learn from Cullen Jones.”
Experts say swimming lessons are only one step in preventing drownings.
“The biggest theme we see is lapses in supervision,” said researcher Mary Frost, assistant director of the Texas Children’s Hospital’s pediatric trauma program. “We hear: ‘I turned my back for one minute,’ or, ‘I went to answer the phone.’ The pool has to be watched. If your pool doesn’t have a lifeguard, you are the guard.”
“It’s easier for kids to get lessons from no cost to low costs, so there’s no excuse anymore,” Jones said. “Get lessons.”