After Cullen Jones almost drowned in a water-slide accident at age 5, his parents put him in swim lessons — starting Jones along an unlikely path that carried him all the way to a gold medal in swimming at the 2008 Olympics on an American freestyle swim relay team.
Jones is again a medal favorite in London, but he is already golden to thousands of children and their parents as the face of the USA Swimming Foundation’s national “Make A Splash” campaign, which encourages black youth to follow his lead by learning to swim. Only about 30 percent of black children can swim — half the percentage of white children — and the drowning rate for black children ages 5 to 14 is nearly three times that of white or Hispanic children, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston has also dived into the movement, and is now making swim lessons mandatory for members.
The reasons black children have such low swimming rates may have roots in economic disparities and white-only pools, but Jones is sending the message that change is overdue: “If you don’t know how to dribble a basketball you won’t die, but if you don’t know how to swim you might die,” he once told the Chicago Defender newspaper. The responsibility of being a safe-swim ambassador, he said, “is what came with the gold medal.” The children Jones reaches out to may never follow him onto an Olympic podium, but their safety is victory enough.