One of the most thrilling moments of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing was the gold medal performance by the U.S. swim team in the 4x100 freestyle relay. While most of the adulation focused on phenom Michael Phelps and Jason Lezak, whose final-lap surge earned the victory, another member of that team deserves recognition not only for his part in bringing home the gold, but also for his commitment to ensuring that more African American kids make it home safely from the pool or the beach.
Cullen Jones, a 24-year-old from the Bronx, is only the second African American ever to win Olympic gold in swimming. According to The Washington Post, he began swimming at age 5 after nearly drowning at a Pennsylvania amusement park. He developed a love for the sport, eventually starring on the North Carolina State swim team, and has been a standout amateur and professional competitor since 2006.
But Jones doesn’t just swim for personal glory: He wants to make sure that more African American youth learn to swim, not only to introduce more of them to the sport, but also to save lives.
“Let’s say two kids are walking beside a pool and one decides it would be funny to push the other one in,” said Jones. “If the one who gets pushed can swim, maybe it’s funny. If he can’t, you’ve got a real problem.”
Statistics show that black children between the ages of 10 and 19 are three times more likely to drown than whites and 58 percent don’t know how to swim, compared to 31 percent of whites. Every day, nine African American children drown — and that number is rising.
Clearly, more African Americans need to know how to survive in the water and Jones is on a mission to see that they do. Through the Cullen Jones Diversity Tour, a Bank of America-backed effort that will include swim meets and clinics for minority youth throughout the country, Jones will add his golden touch to efforts by pioneers like Jim Ellis. The legendary founder of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation Swim Club, Ellis’ commitment to turning out world-class black swimmers was chronicled in the 2007 movie “Pride.”
Jones’ Olympic win gives us a golden opportunity to teach our children that learning to swim is not only fun, it also can save lives.