"Black people don't swim."
That's something Cullen Jones has heard all his life -- even from his own family members.
"It's a stereotype that unfortunately a lot of African Americans believe to be truth," Jones explains. "I even have family members who say, 'We don't swim."
But the 28-year-old is hard at working turning that around, and has made an impact on levels large and small. For more than four years, the Olympic gold medalist has been the face of the Make a Splash campaign, whose goal is to teach children, especially minorities, how to swim. It's a program that's close to Jones' heart because he was almost a statistic. At the age of 5, he nearly drowned on an amusement park water ride, but instead turned that experience into a strength. Jones became only the third African-American to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team and just the second to win a gold medal.
His story made him the perfect spokesman for the campaign, one that he definitely wanted to be a part of after hearing the numbers. According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children don't know how to swim and they're more than three times more likely to drown than white children.
He says Make a Splash reached a million kids last year and hopes to make it another million or more in 2012. It's progress that everyone can understand, but the individuals Jones has reached are what stick with him the most.
"A little girl's parents in North Carolina told me she had to make the decision between swimming and basketball," Jones recounts. "She chose swimming because she heard my story and heard me speak."
Jones is currently in Houston spreading his message for Make a Splash and says the most interesting thing he's learned during his travels is fear of the water is not an issue with children. He's never once had to persuade a child that water is fun. The problem arises when he asks if they've had swimming lessons and the answer is almost always "no."
"You can't expect lifeguards to watch over your kids," Jones warns, citing that there were lifeguards present when he nearly drowned. "You wouldn't let them play football without a helmet or ride in a car without a seatbelt."
The biggest challenge for Jones and the program is getting parents to understand how important this is. It's not just a hobby or sport, but a necessary life skill. The biggest factor when it comes to African-Americans learning how to swim is exposure. Jones says they never grow up thinking about swimming; the focus is on basketball, football and track. He hopes that what he's accomplished on swimming's biggest stage is helping to change that.
"Tiger Woods opened up the door for golf. I'd like to be the person who opens up the door a little more for swimming."
-- You can follow Adam on Twitter @AdamKWatson.
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