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Giving Kids a Lifeline
ANDREW LAWRENCE
August 23, 2010
Black children are three times more likely to drown than white ones. Olympic champ Cullen Jones is out to remedy that
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August 23, 2010

Giving Kids A Lifeline

Black children are three times more likely to drown than white ones. Olympic champ Cullen Jones is out to remedy that

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In a perfect world, every swimming club would be like Asphalt Green: accessible, inviting and safe. A recreational Shangri-la on 5½ acres of riverfront parkland on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Asphalt Green takes its name from the parabola-shaped asphalt plant that was converted into a community sports and arts center in 1984. Asphalt Green's AquaCenter houses Manhattan's only publicly accessible Olympic-sized pool—a 50-meter marvel whose shape-shifting properties (the bottom can be raised and lowered in sections, among other tricks) keep it in near constant use.

Asphalt Green's public-school waterproofing program is now 16 years old. Thanks in part to the facility's 3,000 dues-paying members, more than 30,000 local kids have learned how to swim either at the AquaCenter or at their own schools. Once counselors persuade kids to get over the skimpy suits (which Asphalt Green provides gratis thanks to a donation from Speedo) and allay black swimmers' singular anxieties about chlorine—which renders their skin dry and ashy in appearance and causes processed hair to discolor or break off—the only remaining concern is whether the kids will ever get out of the water.

For Asphalt Green executive director Carol Tweedy, one of whose goals is to find and develop elite swimmers, this is a good problem to have. "We are really looking for talent in the communities of color," she says. "We look at kids in waterproofing to see who has a real feel for the water. We scholarship them into our swim school, then move them onto the swim team." Among the 200 kids on the squad is Lia Neal, a 15-year-old Brooklynite of Chinese and African-American descent who holds four national records. Like Jones, who is one of her idols, she raced at nationals, but was beaten out of a spot on the Pan Pacific squad. She could well wind up at the London Olympics if she continues progressing at her current pace.

Asphalt Green is the model to which Make a Splash aspires, and its success is one reason Jones jumps in the water with kids across the country and teaches them how to float and tread water—so that they can see him, touch him and, eventually, swim on their own. "If you introduce swimming as a fun thing, then kids pick up on it," Jones says. "Once they learn it, they've got it." For life.

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More notes on Olympic sports from Brian Cazeneuve at SI.com/more

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