At the age of five, Cullen Jones had a life-altering experience on a water ride at Dorney Park in Pennsylvania. Because of this incident, Jones’ parents enrolled him in swimming classes, which he credits with helping him overcome his fear of the water and opening doors to competitive swimming and even the Olympics. “I’ve had quite a few people come up to me over the years with different reasons as to why they’re afraid of the water,” said Jones. And believe me when I say I really get that because it was me. I was too terrified of swimming to even consider trying to return to competitive swimming. When I was around eight years old, I went to my first swim meet and told my parents, “This is what I want to do.”
After competing in the 4 x 100 freestyle at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Jones became the first Black American to hold a global swimming record. Jones, now 39 and a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, is paying it forward by teaching kids to swim. He focuses on Black kids since they have a threefold higher risk of drowning.
The Black Leadership in Aquatics Coalition (Team BLAC), a national advisory board under the USA Swimming Foundation’s diversity, equity, and inclusion group, was created in 2020 with Jones’s assistance to help close the swimming gap. Maritza McClendon, an Olympic winner and the group’s chair, works to make sure young Black swimmers have access to mentors, tools, and a welcoming environment. Jones claims a Charlotte police officer racially profiled him while he was “literally just walking my dog” one night, prompting him to join Team BLAC. Jones claimed that he was overcome with emotion throughout the encounter because he feared for his son’s future.
Jones has expressed a desire for his 3-year-old kid to be accepted in the sport through the initiatives established by Team BLAC. At the age of 15, Jones began instructing others how to swim after he had saved more than ten lives as a lifeguard in New Jersey. Now, he and other Olympians like Elizabeth Beisel and Rowdy Gaines are spreading the word about the significance of learning to swim as part of the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Tour.
Jones, who has been a part of Make a Splash since 2008, has indicated that the organization holds a “auditorium style” discussion with kids before giving them a low-cost or free 30-minute swimming session. A person who learns to swim is more likely to pass that knowledge on to someone else, he explained, so these kinds of events have a good domino impact on society as a whole. “I encourage you to go out there and learn to swim because it’s not just that swimming is a great sport,” Jones told the students. We should all have this ability because “it’s a life skill.”
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