It was supposed to be a nice day at the amusement park when five-year-old Cullen Jones and his family got on a water ride. Things quickly took a turn for the worse when Cullen fell into the water, sending his mom, who could not swim, into a panic. It was her worst nightmare. Cullen didn’t drown that day, but he came dangerously close. The incident served as a wake up call to his mom that Cullen needed to learn how to swim immediately.
Understandably, he was afraid to get back in the water, but his mom was persistent. She sent him to three coaches before he learned, Cullen explains over the phone from Atlanta where he’s working with USA Swimming Foundation’s ‘Make a Splash’ initiative to reduce childhood drowning.
And while drowning is a problem for all kids- it’s the second leading cause of unintentional death for children under age 14- it impacts the African American community disproportionately.
“It’s a big problem for us,” says Cullen, “70 percent of African Americans don’t know how to swim, compared to 30 percent Caucasians. Fear is the number one reason. The second is lack of parental backing. There’s only a 13 percent chance that a child will learn how to swim if his parent doesn’t know, and the third is appearance; hair, tight speedos, ashy skin…”
Thankfully, Cullen’s mom was able to break the cycle, giving him the opportunity to be safe in the water. Statistics prove that swimming lessons can reduce the risk of accidental drowning by 88 percent. What she didn’t know was that young Cullen would fall in love with swimming.
“I knew it was something that I wanted to do from the age of eight when I saw my first swim meet. Plus when my mom told me the story of how I almost drowned and I watched her tear up and get really emotional, I knew it was important that I stick with it.”
Stick with it he did.
Cullen is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a silver medalist, and the first African American male to hold a swimming world record. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the persistence of my parents, especially my mom,” he says proudly. Through swimming, he’s been able to meet his idols Serena Williams, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. “It’s been amazing to meet these trailblazers, and to have some people put my name in this bunch as someone who inspires them is humbling.”
Perhaps because at his core he’s still that 5-year-old kid that wants to conquer the water or maybe this is his way of showing his mom that he’s okay.
“I don’t know if this is going to be my last Olympics, trials begin next month, but I am excited that I can be a beacon for getting African Americans in the water,” he says.
May is National Water Safety Month, so he’ll be speaking all over the country about the importance of learning how to swim for kids, and even adults.
“My mom is learning how to swim right now so it’s never too late, and like riding a bike, once you learn, you never forget.”
Talk about paying it forward!
To find out how to receive free or low-cost swimming lessons in your area, Cullen urges people to go to USASwimmingFoundation.org to find a location near you.
This article first appeared on Madamenoire.com.