Cullen Jones’ resume would lead one to believe he’s a natural in the water. He holds four Olympic medals, is the first African American to hold a world record in swimming, and broke the American record in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2008 United States Olympic Trials. But Jones’ experience in the water started off anything but smoothly. He nearly drowned at a water park when he was 5-years-old, even though his parents were attentive and there were lifeguards on duty.
“We went down a water slide, and my dad went down first. I went down second, and my mom went last. But as soon as I hit the pool of water at the bottom of the slide, I flipped upside down and didn't know what to do, and I hadn't had swim lessons,” says Jones. “I had to be pulled out and resuscitated after being underwater for almost 30 seconds, which is about the point at which a child can start to develop brain damage.” Jones’ mom decided then and there to enroll him in swimming lessons.
He would not only go on to rack up numerous personal accolades in the pool, but now he’s one of the leading water safety proponents in the country. As an ambassador and board member of the USA Swimming Foundation and Brand Ambassador of premier learn-to-swim franchise Goldfish Swim School, he impresses on fellow parents the importance of water safety.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three children in the United States die each day due to water-related accidents, making drowning the number one cause of injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4.
Here, Jones shares three crucial water safety tips for parents to make sure their kids don’t have the same type of scare — or worse — that he had as a child.
Water Safety Tip #1: Expose Your Kid To Water Early
Jones is a proponent of teaching kids how to be responsible around water instead of encouraging them to avoid aquatics altogether. However, he’s empathetic to the fact that some parents and kids have had experiences that have made them fear water.
“My mom was ahead of the game after my experience when she decided not to shield me around water. She grew up nervous around water and didn’t want that for me, so she enrolled me in lessons immediately. Now, it took five different teachers for me to start feeling comfortable again, but eventually I got there,” Jones says.
One of the lessons that still sticks with Jones from his early swim team experiences at Metro Express — a club team at the Jewish Community Center in West Orange, New Jersey — is that swimming should be prioritized as a life skill. In fact, there’s an expectation in the ancient Talmud that parents teach their children to swim.
“When I swam for Jewish communities, swimming was talked about as a life skill and a part of the development of teaching a child. And now, as an adult, I can see why it’s a skill that should be elevated because the drowning rates are at an epidemic level,” he says.
“You wouldn't allow your child to be in a car without a safety belt or play football without pads. In the same way, why would you allow them to go to a pool without making sure they know how to be comfortable in the water?” Jones says. “But parents do it daily, whether it’s dropping their kid off at the pool, sending them to camp, or letting them play with their friends.”
Water Safety Tip #2: Get In The Water With Your Kid
At 3-years-old, Jones’ son Ayven loves swimming. But it took Ayven time to warm up to the idea of swimming lessons when he first started. Jones chalks it up to stranger anxiety, which is developmentally appropriate for kids his age. So he suggests parents find opportunities to get in the water with their kids so that they at least feel comfortable with the environment and have fewer variables to adjust to.
There’s no need to overthink it. It’s not your job to help your kid learn new strokes and techniques. There are professionals for that. Getting in the pool with them is simply a matter of helping them acclimate to the sights, sounds, and feel of the water with someone they trust.
“Just get in the pool and give your kid a positive experience,” Jones says. “Get an inflatable ball, throw it around, let them jump up and down, and have a good time. Because being comfortable is so important for their development and learning how to swim. When Ayven was little, we would just get in the pool and sing Wheels on the Bus with him and blow bubbles in the water. Eventually, he just started putting his face in the water on his own because he got acclimated with us.”
Water Safety Tip #3: Get Your Kid Professional Swimming Lessons
As skilled as Jones is in the pool, he still takes his son to swimming lessons and has someone else do the teaching. “Even as a two-time Olympian, I want my son taught by a certified lifeguard who knows CPR, in a facility where there are other lifeguards on deck,” he says.
In addition to the safety measures in place at facilities that provide professional lessons, the teachers are equipped with techniques to defuse anxiety and help kids have fun while they learn.
“It’s tough to get kids to relax and lay on their back while they are in the water. It’s hard to do because their instinct is to sit up and look around,” he says. “One of the things I love about Ayven’s Goldfish class is that they've put Bubble the mascot on the ceiling. So what do babies and kids do? They look up. It's a perfect environment for a child to learn to swim, and even after taking lessons for a little over a year, Ayven is still obsessed with this feature.”
That being said, Jones is acutely aware of racial and socioeconomic inequalities of access to water and water safety education. It first came to his attention when he started working with the USA Swimming Foundation in 2008. According to its updated figures, 64% of Black children do not know how to swim (compared to 40% of white children), and 79% of children in families that earn less than $50,000 a year do not know how to swim.
“I started looking at my family and friends that didn't know how to swim. And I realized that it's not just that they don't know how to swim but are in danger when they're near water. The overall numbers just rattled my head, so it’s been important to me to work with multiple organizations to expand access to resources in underserved communities,” he says.
Because everyone deserves to have fun splashing around on a hot day — and to be able to do so safely.