Olympian Cullen Jones wants you to get in the swim of things


When he was 5 years old, Cullen Jones was at an amusement park with his parents. Jones' father wanted to go on the biggest water ride. Despite his 'small, scrawny' frame, Jones wanted to go on the ride too.

As he went down the ride, Jones flipped over, passed out, and nearly drowned in the water. Lifeguards had to perform a complete resuscitation to save his life.

'My parents were there,' Jones says. 'Lifeguards were there. And an accident like that can still happen."

After escaping the jaws of a near death in the water, Jones soon found himself back in the pool. He took swimming lessons. He learned how to swim. Eventually, he became an American record holder and just the second African-American swimmer to win gold in the Olympics.

There is only one word to describe the journey Jones has taken.

'Ironic,' he says. 'Big time. You can't write stuff like that. It's an amazing story, even to me who lived it. I'm so thankful for the way I was raised. I'd like to share my story and change the lives of many, many others to get them to understand that it's important to learn (how to swim).'

That is just what Jones is doing.

On Tuesday afternoon, he traveled to Portland to provide a swimming lesson to nine children at the Multnomah Athletic Club pool. The Make a Splash Tour that Jones promotes is sponsored by ConocoPhillips.

'It's a great event,' says Jones, 27, who was born in the Bronx and grew up in New Jersey. 'I love being in the water with the kids and getting them to learn to swim, or getting them to get to the next milestone. It is amazing.'

Jones began the swim lesson by having the children, from the Wattles Boys and Girls Club, sit on the edge of the 50-meter pool. After putting swim caps on them, he drenched everyone - even bystanders - with a huge splash. For the next 45 minutes, Jones was charismatic and caring with the children as he did both group and one-on-one activities with them in the water.

'Cullen relates so well to the kids,' says Ed Burke, ConocoPhillips brand and creative services manager. 'They love him, and he's great with the kids. He's critical to the program.'

It was a thrill for the children to have the opportunity to share the water with a man who owns an Olympic gold medal.

'I got swimming lessons with an Olympic gold winner and I got to be in the pool and it was very fun,' says Carlos Rivero, one of the swimmers. 'It was very cool. He taught me a lot of things to do in swimming and made it be more fun. I might not be the best, but I'll be a little better.'

Living in a state bordered by the Pacific Ocean and with rivers and lakes, being able to swim may seem like a way of life for most people in Oregon. The number of children who cannot swim throughout the nation is staggering, though.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,400 people drown in the U.S. each year. More than one in five drowning victims are younger than age 14. Forty percent of white children cannot swim. Even more shocking is that 60 to 70 percent of black and Hispanic children cannot swim, according to a national research study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis. And black children drown at a rate nearly three times higher than white children.

'It's troubling for me, especially because I grew up with swimming,' Jones says. 'It was really real to me when they approached me to be a part of this initiative. This was a real problem. It bothers me a lot.'

Jones has kept up on his own swimming career while working with children. He is the American-record holder in the 50 freestyle. Taking home a gold medal as part of the 400-meter freestyle relay team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics is the shining moment in Jones career. But winning an individual medal in the 2012 London Olympics has become his obsession.

'It's been the fire for my swimming for the past three years,' Jones says. 'I really want to represent the country. I'm just going to put my head down toward London.'

Jones also has the added pressure of being a torchbearer for black swimmers.

'I wasn't the first,' he says. 'There were quite a few people ahead of me. I do understand that right now I am carrying the torch. I'm thankful for that. I'm trying to push it as far as I can as long as I'm swimming and as long as I can do it afterward.'

During a race, Jones prefers to let what his skin color means fade away into his furious, rhythmic strokes.

'I don't try to let it influence my swimming,' he says. 'If I thought about it while I was swimming it would mess me up.'

Whatever happens in the London Olympics and beyond, Jones wants to continue teaching children how to swim long after he has finished his last competitive race.

'I'm going to be doing this as long as Conoco and U.S. swimming wants me to be a part of it,' Jones says. 'There are different ventures that I want to do with my life. But this is something that's always going to be a part of me. This is going to be something that I'm always going to feel very strongly about.'