Swimming: Cullen Jones Says Youth of All Colors Must Learn Water Safety
In Oregon about one third of drowning accidents that kill children under 15 are in swimming pools; others occur in rivers or other bodies of water
Helen Silvis Of The Skanner News
August 11, 2011
Cullen Jones at the Wattles Boys and Girls Club this week. Photo credit: Helen Silvis
It didn’t faze him, he says.
Jones visited the Wattles Girls and Boys Club this week to talk about why all kids should learn to swim, before bringing five of the boys and girls who attend the club to the Multnomah Athletic Club for a special swim lesson.
With the 6’ 5” Olympian in the water making sure they were safe, Andres and Carlos Rivera, Jania Pittman, Alania McClane-Clemons and Ajiqlia McClure learned the freestyle swimming stroke and got confident enough to jump in the water and swim a short way.
Practice brings confidence and safety in the water, Jones says. But understanding the risks and dangers is also important.
In Oregon about one third of drowning accidents that kill children under 15 are in swimming pools; others occur in rivers or other bodies of water.
If you jump into a cold water current, you run the risk of lowering your temperature so rapidly you lose the strength to swim and you can end up losing your life, Jones says.
Today Jones is a record-setting sprint swimmer with his sights set on winning a medal or two in London at the 2012 Olympics.
Jones says his brush with death convinced his mother to send him for swimming lessons.
“When I say I’m a swimmer, people laugh and say ‘Black people don’t do that; they don’t swim’,” he says. “My own community believes that we don’t swim.”
In fact, 70 percent of African American and 60 percent of Hispanic children have never learned to swim, which puts them at higher risk for drowning, Jones says. And for children under 14, drowning is the second highest cause of accidental deaths (right behind car crashes).
“It’s such a high number. It’s an epidemic,” he says. “It is so important to get kids water safe.”
Jones came to Portland to do just that. Working with the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash water safety campaign, he is advocating for all children to learn to swim. That would save a lot of lives, he says.
“People overestimate their abilities and just jump in the river…But even me, I should wear a life jacket when I’m around dangerous water.”
Last year, Walter Dines, an 18 year old athlete, drowned in the Clackamas River. The teen was on the road to success, preparing to go to the University of Newhaven in Connecticut on a full-ride scholarship. After he drowned, his distraught family launched efforts to support other teens – in Maryland where his family now live, and here in Portland where they still have relatives and friends.
Paul ‘Super Duper” Kelly, a close family friend, runs the Walter Dines Basketball League, which allows teens to stay in the game if they don’t make a school team that year.
“When I was in high school, we had to learn to swim in freshman PE,” he said. I think if it was made more accessible and required for PE then more people would be able to swim. Not a lot of inner-city African American kids have backyard pools. But everyone loves the water – unless they have faced this kind of tragedy and they are afraid.”
“Even in Walter’s case, I believe if he’d had a little more knowledge about water safety and different currents of water, he may not have jumped in the river that day or he may have been been able to save his life.”
“I want other people to learn from his passing how important it is to be aware of the dangers around water.”
“In that situation, (on the Clackamas River) 1000 kids jump in there every year and they are fine, but that one person who is more affected by the cold and can’t fight the current may lose their life.”
So why is it that so many African Americans don’t swim?
Jones said fear was the main reason, and that fear is passed down through the generations. Parents can’t swim and they fear drowning. And that fear is passed along to the next generation. Now is a good time to break that cycle, he says.
To help more families send their children to swim lessons, the USA Swimming Foundation, works with local partners, who provide free and low-cost lessons. In Oregon those partners are the Mt. Hood Aquatic Center, which also runs classes at Sam Barlow High School, Reynolds Middle School and David Douglas; the City of Vancouver; and the Salvation Army’s KROC Center in Salem. Portland Parks and Recreation is not a partner but also offers low-cost lessons and scholarships.
Sponsors Conoco Phillips have supported USA Swimming Foundation programs for 38 years.
In Beijing, at the 2008 Olympics, Jones swam his way to a Gold medal in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle. Along with US teammates: Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale, he set a world record for the event.
Since then he says, he’s been training hard.
“Right now I’m very, very focused for London, and I think all the work I do for ‘Make A Splash’ is going to be crucial for me making that team,” he says. “My number one goal is I want to perform well in the individual event. The bar is set high but I think I can accomplish it.”
Find out more about Cullen Jones' work here at his website
The American Medical Response River Rescue Team will distribute copies of Portland Parks and Recreation’s swim lesson schedules to all parents at Safe Kids Water Training: 10:30 a.m. Aug. 18. at Troutdale Parks and Recreation’s Glen Otto Park.
The AMR team also will be providing water safety information from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Aug. 27 at Clackamas Town Center Safety Fair