Olympic Medalist Cullen Jones Wants More Minorities To Swim

Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Cullen Jones almost drowned as a child, and he’s concerned that some of the approximately 60 percent of black children who can’t swim could become drowning victims. Jones talks with host Michel Martin about his efforts to boost the number of swimmers among minority children.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear from a 60-year-old swimmer chasing one of her unfulfilled dreams. Diana Nyad is a few weeks away from trying again to swim from Cuba to the United States. Her first unsuccessful attempt was 32 years ago.

But first, another big name in the world of swimming. Olympic gold medal swimmer Cullen Jones. Jones first won gold at the World University Games in 2005. He was the first African-American to do so. Then at the Pan Pacific Games in 2006 he teamed with Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak and Neil Walker in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

(Soundbite of relay)

Unidentified Man: Oh, what a leg by Cullen Jones, the American, 6/10ths under the world record pace as Jason Lezak...

MARTIN: In 2008, he helped the U.S. bring home Olympic gold and another world record in the 4x100. He's touring the country now working with the USA Swimming Foundation. But his message is not just that being in the water is fun. Minorities, it turns out, drown at a far disproportionate rate to their presence in the population.

Here in Washington, D.C. he taught swim lessons to kids at the very pool where a young girl drowned just a few weeks ago. We're pleased to have Cullen Jones with us now. He's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CULLEN JONES (Olympic Swimmer): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in swimming?

Mr. JONES: Well, it's actually an interesting story because when I was five years old, not many people really believe this, but I almost drowned at an amusement park. And that's why, really, it's been my life's work since I have gotten the gold medal to really help try to spread diversity in swimming. And just more importantly get our kids safe.

MARTIN: Why do people find that hard to believe?

Mr. JONES: It's kind of ironic that, you know, the same sport that could have almost killed me, I'm actually one of the fastest and now I've actually made a career off of it.

MARTIN: Your parents had to have had a role in this, because, you know, at five you probably couldn't get to the pool by yourself. And I wanted to ask, was it hard for them to find a pool for you to swim in? Was it easy for them to access this sport?

Mr. JONES: You know, the funny thing is I've been going from city to city and the biggest problem hasn't been access. You know, there are pools. The biggest thing is no one's shed light on it. And unfortunately, like the young girl who passed away here, it takes tragedy for people to kind of turn their heads. And it's unfortunate, but that's why I'm trying to on a positive note kind of shed light on it.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, a couple of years ago, the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, reported that the rate of fatal drowning is highest among African-American children ages 5 to 14. It's 3.1 times that of white children in the same age range. And a University of Memphis study says that nearly 70 percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have low to no swimming ability. And you're saying this is not an access issue anymore. It's not anymore.

Mr. JONES: It really isn't an access issue. Continuing with the University of Memphis' study, there's really three big things that they're saying. And the first big thing is fear. And I can completely speak to that. You know, I almost drowned at five and my mom told me it took me a while because I was very timid about getting back in the water.

Secondly, it's parental backing. A lot of parents themselves don't know how to swim and they feel that because they can't save their child, God forbid anything was to happen, they treat water like fire. Stay away from it. It's bad.

And third is definitely the physical aspect of it: dry skin, ladies with their hair, which I understand completely, my mom spends good money getting her hair done, I completely understand it. The thing that we're really telling people is that no matter what the issue is, it's a life-saving and it's a life skill situation. I mean, it can really open up a whole new world to people.

MARTIN: And can we talk about the hair thing for minute?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You know, there's another study that I recently read that suggested that a significant percentage of African-American women have weight issues in part because they won't exercise, even though they know they should exercise because they're concerned about their hair. And I just have to ask you as a man, you know, what do you think about that?

And I have to, okay, and the reason I think it's fair to ask you is that a lot of women will say, well, part of the reason they want their hair to look good is because they want the men to think it's attractive. That men don't like the hairstyles that are more practical. So, can you speak to that?

Mr. JONES: I just feel like - my mom has just lost 15 pounds and it's for health reasons. And she tries to stay on top of both her weight and her hair. And I understand from her stance that she's looking at it not only from the physical aspect, but the health aspect. But I just think it's more important to be healthy. It's good to look good because it helps your self esteem for sure. I mean, my coach he says you won't swim fast unless you look good. That's his big thing.

So, I mean we try to look good so we can do well. And it's the same thing, I feel like in life. You know, when you can walk around in confidence and kind of just find a happy medium between the two, then you can be successful.

MARTIN: If I see you with somebody on your arm rocking a major weave, I'm going to come look for you.

Mr. JONES: I didn't say that that was wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm just saying. What's your message to parents who you say treat water like fire?

Mr. JONES: The thing that I would say is don't project your own fears onto your kids. Enable them. My mom went against the grain. She didn't know how to swim. When I almost drowned, she got me into swim lessons. She didn't want to hold me away from stuff. And that's really what I want to tell parents is that I know you might have an issue, you might have had that crazy uncle that threw you in the cool and said swim back and made it like a survival thing, which is the worst way to teach a kid how to swim. But kids love the water and you never know when they're going to be near water. So let's give them some lessons so that they can be safe.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit, if you would, in the couple minutes we have left about being (unintelligible) African-American in your sport, where it's still unusual. I mean, there are some some people don't like to talk about that. They said, just recognize my athletic achievements. I don't want to hear about the rest of that. I don't want to call any names.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But there are people in other sports where they are unique, let's say, who kind of don't appreciate that focus.

Mr. JONES: Well, I can't speak to that person or a few people. But what I can say is is that I'm not the first person when it comes to swimming that's had success. I've had a few good teachers that have really, you know, kind of passed the torch to me at this point and I'm kind of trying to run with it as far as I can because, I mean, I think that it's definitely a need in my sport.

I mean, like you said, I am the only African-American that was on the Olympic team. And that's something that I think that will change. I mean when you look at different sports you look at Tiger, you look at Venus and Serena. Once someone paved the way, people tend to follow that route. And me being somewhat of a role model, you know, people can understand that it doesn't have to be that way. We can bring more and more African-Americans to swimming.

MARTIN: So, what's the plan for 2012? Are we going to see you?

Mr. JONES: Oh, definitely. I want to get an individual gold medal, actually, a few.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: We'll see what happens. But I got the American record last year, so I'm ready to try it.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Mr. JONES: Thank you, I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Cullen Jones is an Olympic gold medalist. He's an advocate for learn to swim programs across the country. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio on a visit to Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JONES: Thank you for having me.

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