Olympic swim champion teaching the kids to keep up with Jones
Olympic champion travels the US preaching the importance of knowing how to swim
Leanne Italie in New York
In Beijing and London, US Olympian Cullen Jones was fierce in the water, bringing home gold and silver and setting a world record along the way.
In the pool at P.S. 125, a Harlem elementary school, he was a sweetheart as he laughed, splashed and assured nervous four-, five- and six-year-olds they shouldn't be afraid to get wet.
Summer is on its way in the US and that means pools, lakes and ocean beaches for millions of children, but it is a precarious season for a great many who do not know how to swim.
About 70 per cent of African American children can't swim, according to research, government data and the USA Swimming Foundation, the philanthropic arm of USA Swimming, the national body for competitive swimming. The number of non-swimmers is about 60 per cent among Latino children and about 40 per cent among whites.
"It's a big challenge," said Jones, who nearly drowned when he was five and flipped face down while on a huge slide at a Pennsylvania water park.
"I wasn't fooling around. I wasn't horseplaying or anything like that," said Jones, 29. "My parents were there. Lifeguards were there. Fully supervised and I still went under water for 30 seconds. Unfortunately, it only takes about 20 seconds for a child to drown. They had to pull me out, resuscitate me. My mom got me into swim lessons."
Ten people drown each day in the US and drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for children under 14, according to the foundation.
The reasons more black and Latino children do not learn how to swim or do not perfect their skills to lifesaving levels are varied, says Jones, an ambassador for Make a Splash, the foundation's safety initiative, and Debbie Hesse, the foundation's executive director.
For urban children, it is sometimes a question of access to pools and free or affordable lessons. "For us the critical piece is letting parents who don't swim know how important it is to teach kids," Hesse said. "We found through our research that fear is a big factor. Especially from a cultural perspective, if you've been brought up to fear the water you teach that to your kids."
Jones said he had seen it up close and noted a University of Memphis study in 2010 that revealed another contributing factor, a hindrance of water on physical appearance, including the effect of water and pool chemicals on hair.
"Being African American myself and knowing people in my own family, we've been taught that this is something we don't do. We stay away from water. We don't swim," he said. "We're trying to change a full cultural perspective on this."
In the past five years, Jones has instructed thousands of children. His loudest message is simple: Swimming is fun.
"Some parents themselves have had traumatic episodes or they were taught themselves to stay out of the water," Jones said. "They look at water as being like fire, dangerous. We have this generational cycle that goes on where no one learns how to swim until there's some kind of tragedy, unfortunately, then we see a lot of families switching to, 'Oh, well we need to get our people water safety.' We want to stop that. We don't want there to be tragedy for people to wake up, to know that this is a life skill."
The swimming foundation partners with local pools to provide lessons and tours the country urging water safety.
"We feel like getting the message out there is critically important," Hesse said. "Imagine standing on the side of a body of water and knowing you can have fun and enjoy versus, 'This could be something that could end my life'."
Jones said helping reluctant young swimmers overcome their fear of the water, especially those who might have suffered a scary brush with drowning, is his top priority.
He also urges children never to swim alone. Also important, he says, is to know how to get out of the water. He shows the basic elbow, elbow, knee, knee drill when he's working with children.
Dakari Alston, a six-year-old student, hears him loud and clear. "If someone knocks you in you're gonna drown, so that's why you always need water safety," he said poolside, wrapped in a towel after a session with Jones.
Stay-at-home dad Adrian Garcia, who has four- and five-year-old boys at the school, doesn't swim himself but recognises the importance. "Little kids in the swimming pool, it's very good," he said. "These people, they're really helping."