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African-American gold medal swimmer promotes water safety

Gold medalist Cullen Jones encourages minorities to learn to swim

September 20, 2011|By Nick Sortal, Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE — Cullen Jones may have an Olympic gold medal for swimming, but on Tuesday he focused on coaxing the next generation of African-Americans to paddle across a pool.

That's because of statistics he quoted: At least seven out of 10 African-American children don't know how to swim. And nationwide, minority children drown three times as often as white children.

"When I heard those numbers, I was shocked," said Jones, who was part of the 4x100 relay team in Beijing in 2008. "But I see an opportunity to change that."

Jones visited the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale to help explain the USA Swimming Foundation's Make-A-Splash program, designed to teach minority children to swim. In the past four years, Make-A-Splash has made grants to more than 400 swim-instruction programs across the U.S., including 11 in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Jones said his father wanted him to play basketball, but fate stepped in when he was 5 and he almost drowned at a Pennsylvania water park.

"My inner tube flipped and I had to be resuscitated," he said. "Within a week, my mother had me in swim lessons."

Getting African-Americans into the pool is difficult because swimming is far less popular than other sports, said Dillard High swim coach Gainus Wright. He plasters the school with fliers seeking even novice swimmers, but still has fewer than 10 on a team.

"We still don't quite get it. We're blinded by the potential of football and basketball, believing we're that one person who's going to make it," Wright said.

After Jones' speech, he gave water-safety lessons to six 4- and 5-year-olds, teaching them how to kick, blow bubbles and reach the side of the pool. Jones put the onus of teaching water safety on parents.

Fernando Castro, watching his 5-year-old Angelina, agreed.

"It's a parent's responsibility," said Castro, of Hollywood. "Making sure our children can swim is a part of our job." 

The International Swimming Hall of Fame is open 9 – 5 on weekdays and 9 – 2 on weekends. For more information, call 954-462-6536, or visit www.ishof.org

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