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He was only five years old when he found himself staring up at death, another black child on his way to becoming a statistic. Cullen Jones had not foreseen the danger ahead of him at the waterpark in Allentown, Pa., that summer afternoon in 1989. Not when he stood atop a waterslide with his mother, Debra, and father, Ronald. Not when Ronald, ahead of him in line, told him to hold fast to his inner tube. Not when he shot out of the slide like a torpedo, flipped forward from the inner tube and sank to the bottom of the pool.
Ronald was returning his inner tube and didn't notice what had happened; when he saw Cullen in trouble, he hollered for a lifeguard. As Debra—a poor swimmer herself—came down the slide last, she heard her son's shouts of joy suddenly cut off. At the bottom of the ride, she could just keep her head above water by standing on her tiptoes and was unable to join the rescue effort, by then already under way. Though it all happened in a flash, the time could not have passed more slowly for Cullen. No matter how hard he kicked, he couldn't get to air. No matter how much he thrashed, he couldn't shake the feeling that "someone was choking me, literally taking my breath away." Then everything went dark.
For parents, there is no worse nightmare than to see their child dying and not be able to save him. For black parents, who are far less likely than their white counterparts to know how to swim, the fear of a child drowning can be especially strong. That fear can cause them to try to keep their children as far away from pools as possible; it is just one of several reasons why, generation after generation, many African-Americans never learn to swim.
But for Debra and Ronald Jones—whose son was saved by a lifeguard who performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him—the near tragedy led them to enroll Cullen in swimming lessons. Within three days he was in a beginners' group at their YMCA in East Orange, N.J.
The opportunity to learn was all he needed. Now 26, the 6'5", 210-pound Jones has become one of the world's best sprint swimmers. He holds one world and one U.S. record, and he won a gold medal on the U.S. 4 × 100-meter freestyle relay team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Two weeks ago at nationals in Irvine, Calif., his second-place finish in the 50-meter freestyle was good enough to qualify him for a place on the American squad for this week's Pan Pacific championship, bringing him one step closer to his quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games.
That's not the biggest challenge Jones has set for himself, however. He is trying to reshape his sport—to remove the whites-only reputation that swimming has in many black communities, to inspire young blacks to become elite swimmers and, most important, to prevent thousands of Americans, especially African-Americans, from drowning.
With his Olympic medal as a prop, Jones barnstorms the country as the face of USA Swimming's Make a Splash campaign, selling black parents in particular on the life-saving value of swimming lessons. He jumps into city pools to teach kids how to swim and travels from his training base in Charlotte to Washington, D.C., to try to convince lawmakers that lives and billions of dollars could be saved with a nationwide investment in children's "waterproofing" programs (in which kids are taught to swim in order to minimize their chances of drowning). "Kids definitely want to be in the water," Jones says. "You teach them how to be water-safe, and the drowning numbers drop."
Nearly 4,000 Americans drown every year. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death in children from ages one to 19, killing almost three kids a day in the U.S. About half of the victims are older than four, the age at which the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children start swimming lessons.
Even the most basic survival skills could help prevent tragedies such as the one that occurred earlier this month, when six Louisiana teens drowned while playing in the Red River. The victims, five boys and a girl who ranged in age from 13 to 18 years old, had gathered near the river with their families for an afternoon barbecue and broke from the group to cool off in the water on a 100° day. When one child waded in too deep and was pulled under as the river floor dropped some 25 feet, another tried to save him—setting off a calamitous chain of events.
One by one each child went after the other until seven children altogether were thrashing for their lives in the water, which is near a public park but is not a designated swimming area. (There was no lifeguard, and trenches had been dug along the shore to discourage swimming.) A bystander jumped in and rescued 15-year-old DeKendrix Warner, but the other six wouldn't emerge from the muddy waters until nightfall, after rescue workers spent three hours searching for and finally recovering their bodies from a 30-foot-deep section of the river about 20 feet from where they disappeared. Marilyn Robinson, a family friend who was there that afternoon, could only watch helplessly with the other adults. "None of us could swim," the 38-year-old told The Times of Shreveport. "They were yelling, 'Help me, help me! Somebody please help me!' It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one."