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This Mom Wants Everyone in the Pool

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Olympian Cullen Jones, the first African-American male to hold a world record in swimming, learned the hard way about water safety as a child. Now he and his mom Debra are leading a movement to help kids of all colors gain access to pools and life-saving swimming skills.

Cullen Jones
Kimberly Seals Allers: A few weeks ago, my daughter Kayla stood on the edge of the diving pool, ready to plunge into the 8-foot deep end of our backyard swimming pool and swim the whole length for the very first time. She was full of pride and excitement. I was a freakin' nervous wreck. As I stood there with my best (and fakest) "Go get 'em" smile and pump of the fists, I was secretly scanning the pool area for lifesaving poles and remembering everything I learned in my annual pool safety course.

As it turns out, Kayla dived and swam the distance like a champ. But pool safety is a big concern for any mom. Kids love the water. You love their invincibleness about swimming. But you also need them to have a healthy fear of the water. It's a lesson few people know as well as Debra Jones, mother of Cullen Jones, the first African-American male to hold a world record in swimming. Cullen's speed and comfort in the pool began very differently. When Cullen was 5 years old, he was at an amusement park and went on a water slide-type ride in an inner tube. At the end, the inner tube flipped and it stunned the young boy, who lost consciousness and nearly drowned.

Recently, I spoke with Cullen's mom and learned that day was still as vivid as ever for her. "When they revived him, Cullen looked at me and said, 'Can I do it again?'. That's when I knew he loved the water," Debra says. That fall, a nearby YMCA opened a Learn to Swim program and she enrolled Cullen.

Unfortunately, African-American children drown at a rate almost three times higher than Caucasian children in similar age groups. The first black male to hold a world record in swimming, Cullen Jones is now using his fame (and his mom) to raise awareness about the issue and ensure more kids learn to swim, especially in urban areas. As primary spokesman for the USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash initiative, Jones, one of the fastest freestyle sprinters in the world, is visiting six U.S. cities to promote the availability of low- to no-cost swimming lessons to give all kids access to life-saving swimming skills.

It's a cause Debra is very passionate about. "So many of our children are vulnerable. Our exposure is different. We don't necessarily have our own pools. Or we live near lakes. We love being in the water, but lack the understanding of riptides or what to do when you find out it's deeper than you thought it was," Jones says. According to research done by USA Swimming in 2008, six out of ten African-American children don't know how to swim, nearly twice as many as their white counterparts, while 56 percent of Hispanic and Latino children are unable to swim.

It's even worse when children who want to learn how to swim are denied access to swimming pools, as recently occurred at the Valley Club in suburban Philadelphia. Debra Jones has words for that too. "My heart was ripped out when I saw this little boy who only wanted to swim and was told that he wasn't welcome. I've read the comments back and forth, and that underlying cloud that color may have been a factor disheartens me. Everything that Cullen is trying to do to promote swimming and get children into the pool where pools are available -- and then there are doors that are closed," she says. "I know it is 2009, but unfortunately some things don't change. A part of me is not surprised. I grew up in the '60s. We have to continue to pray and do what we can to get these kids in the pool," she adds. Amen to that.

To learn more about Make a Splash with Cullen Jones, find low-cost swim instruction in your area, or to sponsor a child in need, visit

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1 comments so far | Post a comment now
Jen August 14, 2009, 3:54 AM

I have taught people of all races and ages to swim over the past 20 years. It’s as fun to teach old folks who have finally gained the courage to swim as it is to teach youngsters full of newfound love for the sport. There is absolutely no difference between the learning ability of white and non-white kids with an interest in learning. They smile the same, get the same sting in their noses when the water doesn’t cooperate, show that same joyful look when they finally make their first jump off the side of the pool, the diving board, or their first whole lap, unassisted, across the pool.

Still, it continues to be difficult to convince kids of color to join the teams. I live in an area that is predominantly Hispanic, but the swim teams for the most part are predominantly white. It’s tough to convince the kids that just because there aren’t loads of non-white kids swimming YET doesn’t mean THEY shouldn’t go out for it.

I’m SO glad Cullen stuck with it, continues to excel and is using his success to help spread the word that, yes, EVERYone can swim, regardless of color. Thanks to Cullen, and to his mom, Debra, for helping educate everyone…even in 2009 when this shouldn’t even be a question anymore!

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