By Charlie Keaton | Thursday, November 16, 2017
Meet Cullen Jones: champion athlete, bona fide intellectual, and the face of the most successful water safety program in America.
As the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative rolls into its second decade, the national learn-to-swim landscape has evolved. In the process of amassing more than 850 partners across all 50 states — thus providing a lifesaving skill to more than four million children — one constant has been Cullen Jones.
Jones is best known as a four-time Olympic medalist and the first African American male swimmer to capture a world record. But his contributions to the sport extend far beyond athletic achievement. The New Jersey native has been a USA Swimming Foundation ambassador since 2007. During that time he’s made Make a Splash Tour stops in dozens of cities, leading clinics and talking directly with families about the importance of basic water safety.
Embracing this role was a natural fit for Jones. As a five year-old, he nearly drowned in the landing pool of a water park ride. Subsequent swim lessons revealed untapped talent and uncommon mental toughness, and he soon joined his first club: Newark Swim Team, which boasted a racial composition rarely seen on pool decks in the 1990s.
“It was a minority team for the most part,” says Jones. “And at that time we were the only culturally diverse group going to swim meets. But I think a lot of the strength that I have came from being on a team of people who kind of looked like me, and we looked out for each other.”
Even as Jones worked his way up the swimming ladder, he explored other interests. He spent hours lost in comic books, and through his father, a lifelong early-adopter “tech geek”, developed a love of gadgets and technology. At age 11, under his dad’s watchful eye, Cullen built his first computer.
Simultaneously, however, a path pointing toward elite status as a world-class swimmer was unfolding before him.
At age 15, Jones joined a new team — this one at a Jewish Community Center where, in contrast to the culturally diverse makeup of his first club, he was the only black swimmer. “I did have both experiences,” says Jones. “And I had a great experience at the JCC. I loved that team, I loved my coach and my teammates.” Even so, as he progressed, racially charged comments became more prevalent — and not only from those who felt threatened by his abilities. The attitudes of his own black and latin friends ranged from puzzled to disapproving. “I was getting it from every direction, but it really didn’t matter because I loved what I was doing.”
He persisted. Following a storied college career at North Carolina State, Jones broke out in a big way at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, setting a meet record in the 50-meter freestyle and a world record as part of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. He followed that with gold medals at the 2007 and 2009 World Aquatics Championships and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He won another gold and two silvers at the London Olympics in 2012.
In the midst of this ascent, Jones was approached by the USA Swimming Foundation about their nascent learn-to-swim initiative. Despite having narrowly escaped tragedy as a boy, he, like most of the country, had no idea how deep and wide the water safety crisis extended: Drowning had quietly become the leading cause of accidental death for children under the age of four, and the second leading cause for children under 14.
“When the Foundation put these stats in front of me, it blew my mind,” says Jones. He saw in those figures the friends and family back in New Jersey who openly rejected learning to swim. “They’re a part of this number that I’m reading on a piece of paper. I’m saying to myself, ‘This is the problem, this is what we’re trying to fix.’ And I related to it because I almost drowned. I was almost a number on this page.”
In his role as USA Swimming Foundation Ambassador, Jones began visiting cities big and small as part of the Make a Splash Tour. When six teenagers drowned in a tragic accident in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2010, the cause took on greater significance. It was an especially heartbreaking story, as one after another lost their life trying to save each other.
Later that year, the USA Swimming Foundation brought a Tour stop to Shreveport, where the community remained in a fog of devastation and disbelief. Rather than embracing the idea of water safety, many families retreated into a generations-old fear of the water. Only six kids showed up to the swim clinic, and they were terrified. Every time Jones invited them to the edge of the pool, they backed into the waiting arms of their parents. A long stretch of prodding and encouragement eventually got all six in the water, but the experience crystalized the challenges and complexities that lie ahead.
“I got out of the pool,” says Jones, “I went into the bathroom, and I just started crying. I thought, ‘I get it. This is what I need to be doing.’ And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
That work includes not only the Make a Splash Tour, but advocating policy changes at the highest levels of government. He’s made trips to Capitol Hill to educate and motivate lawmakers, and he’s spoken to millions of parents across wide-ranging traditional and social media platforms.
Cullen Jones’s life remains a tapestry of varied pursuits and interests — he was married this summer, is on track to finish his college degree next spring, and has set his eyes on a a career path in brand management, fashion, or both. Nevertheless, Make a Splash remains an inextricable part of his life, and with a decade of work on its behalf, he sees plenty of reason for optimism.
“There are so many issues out there with no solution,” Jones says. “But we have a solution for this. It’s swim lessons. We’ve had four million kids learn how to swim, so we know what we’re doing. It’s working. The numbers are coming down. We just need to keep pushing.”
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