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After winning an Olympic gold medal alongside record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps in 2008, Cullen Jones became the first African American to hold a world record in swimming. Since accomplishing this significant milestone, he’s made it his personal mission to encourage African American youth to learn to swim and dispel the myth that ‘Black people don’t swim.’
When nearly drowning at the age of five while attending a local amusement park, the scare prompted Jones’ mother to put him into swimming lessons. While he naturally took to the water, his interest in the sport seemed almost immediately out of place as most of his friends and family members opted to play sports such as basketball and football. As a result, during family vacations or at neighborhood pool parties, “I’m not touching that water” seemed to be a regularly touted sentiment. “They’re not safe around the water….and I’m doing back flips,” shared Jones. "I don’t want this next generation to have to go through that, I want to change ‘Black people don’t swim.' Yes we do. We just need to learn and have these lessons."
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The history of access to community pools has been extremely racially segregated. Local pools across the country were often times ‘white only’ which created generations of black people who simply never had the opportunity to learn to swim and after a while, had no interest for themselves or their children to pursue the skill. Unfortunately, this same lack of interest has contributed to the alarmingly higher rates that black children between the ages of 5-14 die in drowning accidents versus white children of the same ages. “Hands down, fear is the No. 1 reason, whether it’s children, whether it’s parents,” Cullen told "Good Morning America." "Fear is the No. 1 problem."
Photo credit: Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun
Jones’ dominance in the sport caught the attention of USA Swimming who approached him to become a National ambassador for the sport. He’s been traveling with the “Make A Splash Tour” for the last ten years since his historic Olympic win and inspiring new generations of black and brown children to feel more comfortable in water and learn techniques that could one day save their lives. Kids who participate in one of Jones’ swim clinics typically receive discounted continued swimming lessons from their local YMCA or aquatics facility.
“When I saw Tiger Woods play golf, I picked up a club," Jones expressed. "When I saw the (Williams) sisters, I very badly picked up a tennis racquet. And now we’re starting to see more and more people of color become amazing top swimmers, like Simone Manuel, Reece Whitley. We’re seeing the culture starting to represent what more of the U.S. looks like — multicultural."