Olympian who almost drowned works to boost swim skills in others

Feb 25, 2018
Kelli Nash, Tawanda McCall, Tiffany Tillett and Mina Hill listen as Cullen Jones talks about the importance of learning how to swim. Many of the women had never swum before the January clinic in Austin. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

When he was 5 years old, Cullen Jones swooped down a slide at a Pennsylvania waterpark aboard an innertube. At the bottom, his tube flipped, trapping him underwater for half a minute.

Jones lost consciousness. Lifeguards had to pull him out of the water and resuscitate him.

But instead of letting that accident spark a fear of water in her son, Jones’ mother, who had tried to save him and started to drown as well, enrolled him in swim lessons. Those lessons led Jones, who is African-American, into a sport historically dominated by Anglo athletes — and one at which he excelled.

“Swimming wasn’t something I was naturally drawn to,” Jones said during a recent trip to teach a learn-to-swim clinic in Austin. He ended up loving it and climbed to the top of the sport, winning a total of four medals in relays and one individual freestyle event at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.

Now he’s determined to help keep others safe around water, introduce them to a great form of exercise and open up a whole world of recreational opportunities.

The effects of segregation and fear have long kept many black Americans from learning how to swim. For decades, black people were banned from public swimming pools and beaches.

In a 2017 study, researchers at the University of Memphis and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas found that nearly 64 percent of African-American children today have no or low swimming ability, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children.

Jones came to Austin in January as part of an effort by USA Swimming to try to improve those numbers. The group’s Swim 1922 program is designed to increase swimming participation and decrease drowning rates within the African-American community.

About 25 women from the Sigma Gamma Rho service sorority, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, participated in the clinic, held at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy. Some had never gotten in a swimming pool before. Others had been in a pool but weren’t confident swimmers.

The women faced their trepidation head on. After a 45-minute talk from Jones, they headed outside on a chilly afternoon and lined up on the edge of the heated pool. Jones encouraged them with kindness and determination. At first, they put their feet in the water and practiced kicking. After 10 or 15 minutes, they eased into the water, gripping the edge of the pool. Soon they were kicking, one at a time, across the pool using a kickboard, under Jones’ watchful eye. As each one finished, a cheer arose from the others.

Virginia Pearson, the Southwest region corporate sponsorship liaison for Sigma Gamma Rho, says Jones’ story is not uncommon. Pearson almost drowned, too, when she was in fifth grade, and the incident made her fearful of water.

“My parents didn’t make me get back in the water — not that it wasn’t important, but we didn’t live around pools,” she said.

She helped bring Jones’ clinic to Austin in part to focus on making sure the next generation knows how to swim, but also to make sure she and others her age know how to swim, too. “I know how to float, but the clinic gave me a greater security and skill to know that, hey, swimming is something I can do,” she says.

She has since registered herself, her husband and her son for swim lessons.

“These women are impacting their families and communities through this partnership, and our mutual goal is to be inclusive to all backgrounds, ages and ability levels,” says Matt Farrell, chief marketing officer of USA Swimming, which teams with Sigma Gamma Rho to put on learn-to-swim clinics around the country. (Another is planned for Austin later this year, but dates have not been set.)

Drowning ranks as the second leading cause of accidental death under the age of 14, behind car wrecks, and drowning rates are nearly three times higher among black children than white children. Children are four times more likely to learn how to swim if a parent knows how.

So why the discrepancy in swimming skills among racial groups? A couple of factors come into play.

“Sometimes we pass things on generationally,” said LaShonda Johnson, Southwest regional director of Sigma Gamma Rho. “Income plays a role. Some people just don’t have access, so they never learn.”

Yolanda Castillo, chair of the local Swim 1922 program, had taken a swim lesson before Jones’ clinic but still harbored a fear of deep water. Some of her friends and family members never learned how to swim; some of them panic in the water. She wanted to move beyond that.

“When (Jones) said we wouldn’t be able to stand up in the pool, I felt a little anxious,” she said.

That didn’t matter. With her sorority sisters at her side, she eased into the pool, dunked her face in the water and, ultimately, glided across the surface. And she left with a bit of confidence she didn’t have when she arrived — one that comes with knowing how to swim.


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