Cullen Jones, a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist and two-time silver medalist swimmer, has been on the road for the past five years urging water safety to children nationwide.
In collaboration with the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission Department of Parks and Recreation and the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Program, Jones taught swimming fundamentals to approximately 1,000 Prince George’s County Public Schools students from 15 different schools April 8 at the Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Complex in Landover, Md.
Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation Director Ronnie Gathers lauded the great strides made by children participating in the Make a Splash Program. Since its launch in 2011, the ‘Make a Splash In School’ program has provided approximately 3,700 second grade students at local schools with water safety information and swimming lessons at 11 Department of Parks and Recreation aquatic facilities.
“You’ve done one important thing, and that is participating in a program that’s going to take away your fear of the water and eventually you’re going to become very competent swimmers,” said Gathers.
He also talked to the students about summer opportunities at Prince George’s county’s community centers.
“We’re going to teach you how to swim, how to run, how to play ball, how to act at some of our art centers. And you’re going to learn a lot about things you’ve never heard before,” said Gathers.
After a short, biographical film, Jones, accompanied by the Maryland Parks and Recreation mascots, ‘Swimmore’ and ‘Herbie the Shark,’ received the standing ovation of a rock star from students from the ‘Make a Splash in School’ program.
Jones spoke of being afraid of the water after nearly drowning as a child. Jones was five years old when he followed his six-foot, four-inch father onto an amusement park water slide in Pennsylvania.
“So when I got to the top of the slide I was excited about going down on my float. My dad said, ‘I’m going to go first, you’re going to go second and mom’s going last.’ And just before I went my dad said, ‘Cullen, whatever you do don’t let go of the inner tube.’”
The next thing he knew after making a big splash into the water, he turned upside down, holding the inner tube under water. Unfortunately, Jones had no formal swimming lessons and passed out after holding his breath for 30 seconds.
“From that day on my mother knew that I needed swimming lessons,” said Jones.
“I know what it felt to be helpless, looking back up at the top and realizing that maybe I was down too far for me to get to air,” said Jones. “It took my mom to make sure I was at the practices and I was learning how to swim,” said Jones, the second African American in history to win a gold medal in swimming.
Jones said that 70 percent of African Americans and 60 percent of Latin Americans do not know how to swim. Jones said his sole mission was to give back to the sport that had given him so much and teach minority children nationwide how to swim and have fun.
Jones pulled a lucky youngster out of the audience, compared his six-foot, five-inch frame to that of the four-foot youngster, saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll be this tall one day,” and assured the youth that he could still learn to swim, despite his stature.
Today, the 29-year-old Jones goes around the nation telling how he overcame his fear of water, and making sure no child has to go through a similar episode by giving swim lessons nationwide.
“I was raised as a Baptist and my mom always told me to have a heart of service, so giving back is something that I grew up with. So it’s second nature to me to give back, by getting kids water safe and getting them excited about being active,” said Jones.
“I nearly drowned. I didn’t have any formal lessons, but my mom, dad and life guards were there,” said Jones. “That’s what’s important about my story. I was fully supervised. It wasn’t like I was goofing off with my friends.”
“It happened the split second they turned their heads, and that’s when I went under water. And that’s what happens in so many families, when they look away their child can go under,” noted Jones.
“The life guard had to fully resuscitate me and I was under for a full 30 seconds. I was told that you can have brain issues from being under water for 20 seconds.The first thing they did was resuscitate me.The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on,” said Jones. “After that incident, my mom got me into swim lessons,” said the Bronx, N.Y. native.
Jones works to give children the necessary tools for water safety while having fun. “Unfortunately, swimming is one of the only sports that if you don’t know how to do it, you can die. I think that its’ something that kids who love being near water want and need to know,” said Jones. “Just look at the turn-out today. Kids love being near water, so the biggest thing we need to do is give them swim lessons.”
Jones posed for pictures with students and gave out goodie backpacks and autographed pictures before swimming back and forth to different swim stations and helped teach the students basic swim fundamentals. It was apparent from the children laughing that Jones helped their confidence level rise with one-on-one attention, giving them high fives for their efforts.
Teachers and principals at the day-long event were just as excited about Make a Splash in School.
“This is an amazing program,” said Beth Linn, principal, Apple Grove Elementary School in Fort Washington. “This is our third year participating in the Make a Splash program. We were one of the original pilot schools for this program. And having an ambassador like Cullen Jones representing the program is great. So we’re fortunate in that we’re not a Title One school and we don’t have a lot of additional funding.”
“We run the school on next to nothing. So for our kids getting to be involved in a program like this is amazing because it’s a good mix of Title One schools that get federal funding and non-Title One schools. So we’re pretty fortunate that our kids get to participate,” said Linn, who noted that she typically has between 60 and 75 second graders in the program. “That’s about ten percent of our school, and I love it.”
Jones noted that African American children face the greatest drowning risk.
“As a whole, generally minorities are at risk, but African American children are definitely at a higher risk,” said Jones. “They are three times more likely than any other race to drown. And a large part of it is because of (lack of) exposure.”
“The biggest thing I want these children to take away from these lessons today is to tell them to be active. They don’t have to swim; they can run track. But the biggest thing is to just be active,” Jones said.
“I was on the Hill talking publicly about it. We put so much money into health care. So I think the money should be put in our youth’s physical education, rather than health care, and teach them to be more active,” said Jones. “’You’d better be in the house before the street lights come on,’ is an old notion. Today’s kids don’t know that anymore. They’re in their rooms playing Xbox. Don’t get me wrong, I have an Xbox, too, but they’ve got to learn to be active.”
Jones has supported a number of physical events around the nation for children. “The events are not always the same, but my message stays the same: Getting kids active and getting them in the water.”
Jones is training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. “I’m in the water now. Once I leave here today, I got to go back and get my butt kicked by my coach,” said Jones. “It’s still a dream of mine to go out and compete in the Olympics. I think London was great. Bringing home two golds and two silver was great, but I want to get all four golds. So that’s my goal in Rio.”