Olympian Cullen Jones Thinks There’s A Better Way To Teach Kids To Swim

Millions of kids in America can’t swim at all. Four-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones has a plan.

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Four-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones would love for kids to follow in his footsteps — or his wake, if you will — and fall in love with swimming. He just doesn’t want them to have as traumatic a start to their love for aquatics as he did.

Jones medaled 13 times for the United States at major international competitions, taking the golden top spot on the medal stand seven times. He’s the first African American swimmer to hold a world record and swam on the legendary world-record-setting 4x100 freestyle relay team at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Jones stands on the podium after he won the silver medal in the men's 50m freestyle at the London 2012 Olympic Games

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Jones stands on the podium with a silver medal for the Men's 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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Was Jones destined for swimming greatness from the start? Who knows. But he didn’t start swimming lessons until he was 5 years old, after nearly drowning at a water park even though his parents were keeping a close eye on him and there were lifeguards on duty.

After following his dad down a water slide, the young Jones flipped upside down when he hit the splash pool at the end of the run. He got scared, started to panic because he didn’t know how to swim, and ended up submerged for almost 30 seconds, the threshold after which kids can experience brain damage. Lifeguards were able to resuscitate Jones, but not a moment too soon.

The experience was a wake-up call for his parents and the encouragement they needed to get Jones signed up for swimming lessons.

Since retiring from competitive swimming three years ago, Jones has kept busy advocating for water safety and providing kids — especially Black and brown kids — access to organized swimming lessons. It’s work he started doing while swimming competitively, but he’s now been able to dedicate more time and effort to as the senior manager of sports marketing and philanthropy at Speedo.

There’s an 88% chance that a child will be safer on the water and not drown if they have formal swimming lessons,” Jones says. “Sixty-four percent of Black and Latino American kids don’t know how to swim, compared to just 28% of white kids.”

“Water can be dangerous, but [you can’t] treat water like fire, [and] encourage kids to stay away and not go near it.”

That trend continues past childhood and becomes a vicious cycle of swimming illiteracy. A survey from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago that analyzed responses from 1,283 parents of 2,148 children aged 4 years and older found that less than 4% of white parents reported never learning to swim, compared to 26% of Black parents and more than 32% of Latinx parents. And the CDC reports Black children ages 10 to 14 drown in pools at rates more than seven times higher than white children.

“The overarching reason people of color don’t enroll their kids in swimming lessons at higher rates is fear,” Jones says. “They correctly recognize that water can be dangerous, but they treat water like fire, encourage kids to stay away and not go near it.”

Some fear has been passed down generationally as water spaces played a central role in the story of racism and segregation in the United States. Even in Northern states like New Jersey and Massachusetts, Black families gathered in locations like Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City and Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard as they were pushed off or kept off other beaches.

And Civil Rights leaders received intense pushback when they targeted pools as opportunities for desegregation in the South. For example, when Black and white protesters jumped into a whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964, the hotel’s owner poured acid into the pool. And when a federal judge ordered the desegregation of public swimming pools in Birmingham, Alabama, city officials closed all eight pools in the area rather than allow Black swimmers to use them.

Jones understands how access to water spaces and swimming lessons echos through current swimming statistics, and he’s empathetic as to why people of color don’t more broadly pursue swimming lessons for their children.

But in working with kids, Jones has found that encouraging avoidance isn’t effective because kids love playing in the water. Be it in pools, streams, lakes, or rivers, the draw is too strong to expect they’ll simply steer clear.

“I’ve been doing this work with kids for 13 years,” he says. “So my first question is, ‘How many of you like to be near the water?’ There’s not one hand that’s not up. So it’s really, really important that we give our children the proper tools to be safer underwater. And adults as well, because it’s never too late to learn.”

Once you learn how to swim, you never forget.

At the moment, Jones is most excited about a new initiative he has in working with his fraternity brothers from Kappa Alpha Psi and members of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority to provide swimming lessons through the organizations and their members. He sees college students as a prime group that can drastically decrease swimming stigmas in the Black community. Not only do college students carry tremendous sway with kids and teenagers, but they’ll also soon be parents with a decision to make about whether or not to enroll their kids in swimming lessons.

“I’ve been doing this work with kids for 13 years,” says Jones. “So my first question is, ‘How many of you like to be near the water?’ There’s not one hand that’s not up. So it’s really, really important that we give our children the proper tools to be safer underwater.”

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“I’m so grateful to my friend Talia Mark, who helped me get U.S. Swimming connected with Sigma Gamma Rho, because having a swimming initiative in a predominantly Black sorority is a beautiful thing,” Jones says. “When it comes to swimming and Black ladies’ hair, I completely understand it. When my mom gets her hair done, one touch of water can undo the whole thing. So I understand.”

Jones continues, “But one of the things that we talked about combating is once you learn how to swim, you never forget. So I encourage ladies to put their hair in braids, get in the water and learn to swim, and then you can do whatever you want. It takes about two weeks to learn how to swim, but swimming is a skill that lasts a lifetime and can literally save your life.”

Jones is also focused on making sure two of the people he’s closest to learn how to swim — his mother and his nearly 4-year-old son, Ayven.

“My dad knew how to swim, but my mom did not, and she’s still actively trying to combat her fears,” he says. “But she’s facing that fear. It can bring her to tears at times, but once she actually gets in the water, she crushes it every time. It’s just getting the consistency with that lady is the hard part.”

With Ayven, Jones is taking his own advice and enrolling his son in swimming lessons even though he is more than qualified to get his kid up to speed in the pool. Looking back on what made him fall in love with swimming, Jones credits personal relationships with teachers and coaches, which is something he wants to provide for his son.

“Swimming is like a lot of things in life where one of the things that can really make it click for a kid is that student-teacher bond,” Jones explains. “I had a coach, Coach Brad. That was my guy. I felt comfortable with him. He was funny. He was very personable. It was a mix of play and, at the same time, learning. It was just how he taught that made me feel comfortable enough to start seeing all of the progress I was making and could still make if I kept at it.”