Cullen Jones started taking swimming lessons at the age of 5 after nearly drowning at a water park. After learning to swim, Jones went on to excel in swimming at the highest level. Today, he is a two-time Olympian (2008 and 2012). With his record-breaking gold medal win in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay in Beijing, Jones became the first African-American to break a long-course swimming world record and only the second African-American to win swimming gold.
Jones, who currently lives in Charlotte, N.C., is training in hopes of competing once again, this time in the upcoming Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Cullen, 32, is also an ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative, a program aimed at highlighting the importance of learning to swim, especially aimed at ethnic minorities.
Jones will be in Atlanta on Friday to participate in a town hall event (see box for more information). He will also lead a swim lesson at a local YMCA branch on Saturday, but that event is not open to the public.
Q: When you first started taking lessons, were you afraid of the water?
A: My mom says I was terrified. My parents wanted to make sure that I learned to swim, that I didn’t live fearful around water. But it took me a while. We went through three different teachers. … We try to tell parents to be vigilant and keep their kids in lessons. It’s about finding that teacher your child is most comfortable with.
Q: When you were 5, you have talked about your mom didn’t know how to swim. Did she eventually learn to swim?
A: She is now learning. When I talk to parents, I say it’s never too late to learn. My mom is now in the water learning.
Q: How did you go from learning to swim from a safety standpoint to having an affinity for swimming to competing in the Olympics?
A: Well, it took me a while. I was about the age of 8 when I fell in love with the sport. It was at that point that I decided this was something I wanted to do, so it took a couple years of getting better at swimming. I didn’t start off as the Michael Phelps of swimming. I had to work hard and find the love for it, and over the years, I got better. Baby steps (he says with a laugh).
Q: What is it about swimming you fell in love with?
A: When I was younger — I am an only child — it was a social aspect for me. I was hanging out with friends. I was having a good time, that was really one of those things I loved about it. As an adult, I have goals. I still love jumping in the pool. I still love the feeling of swimming fast. I love racing and I love the anxiety and the feeling of nervousness, and I still have goals I want to reach and know that I can reach before I am done with this sport.
Q: What will be your message to young people when you come to Atlanta as an ambassador for USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative?
A: This is an initiative I have been working with since 2009 after winning a gold medal (as part of the 4x100m freestyle relay team in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing). (The USA Swimming Foundation) approached me and showed the drowning rates, and it was not necessarily the numbers that were so staggering but I was thinking about my own family and finding out 70 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim — that is a staggering number. And when I started thinking about my mom, my cousins, my family that are at risk when they are near water and how they are not comfortable near water, that is something that blew me away and I decided this was my way to give back. … I am happy to teach kids and help them have a great experience around water, so that maybe — you never know, they may become competitive swimmers. But most importantly, it’s about (children) getting lessons they need because the drowning rates are entirely too high.
We have the vaccine to the problem: The cure is swim lessons.
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