FROM THE GRIO — Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones describes the pool as feeling like “home,” but it wasn’t always that way. After nearly drowning as a 5-year-old child, Jones learned to swim and has made it his mission to reduce the startling number of drowning deaths among African-American children each year.
“I remember what it feels like to be underwater and I remember what it feels like to be helpless,” said Jones of the time he nearly drowned at a water park. “I was underwater, I couldn’t breathe … and then I completely passed out.”
Now 28 years old, the freestyle sprinter is gearing up for the London Olympics after winning a gold medal four years ago in Beijing. While Jones’ swimming talent is remarkable, his near drowning experience is not. A study by the University of Memphis and the USA Swimming organization showed that around 70 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim, compared to about 40 percent of white children. African-American children between the ages of five and 14 are three times more likely than other children to drown, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When the African-American Jones first learned these numbers a few years ago, he was shocked.
“I am also one of the statistics, because I almost drowned. It seems like everything in my life was written on that page,” Jones said in an interview scheduled to air Thursday, July 26 at 10pm/9c on NBC.
Jones still vividly remembers the moment he almost died. He and his parents had left their New Jersey home for a day of fun at Pennsylvania’s Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom. But at one point, his inner tube flipped over and he was underwater for 30 seconds.
“So I was holding on to this inner tube and I’m, like, flailing,” he said.
“My parents told me I was clinically dead,” Jones said. “My mom was in tears. My dad was trying to console her and the lifeguard was giving me CPR.”
Lifeguards performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to bring Jones back to life. Jones’ mother, Debra, watched in horror. She couldn’t swim and was unable to help her son. After nearly losing her only child, she decided to put Jones in swim classes within the week.
Jones now travels the country with the Make a Splash Initiative, recounting his story to minority kids in hopes that he can raise the number of minority swimmers and consequently reduce the amount of drowning deaths.