African-Americans and the Importance of Knowing How to Swim

Data News Exclusive Interview with Olympic Gold Medal Swimmer Cullen Jones

By Edwin Buggage

Cullen Jones, Sigma Gamma Rho, Swim USA Partner to Teach Swimming and Water Safety

Today Cullen Jones is known by many a Champion Olympic Swimmer, but when he was five-years old he nearly drowned while at a Pennsylvania Waterpark when his inner tube flipped and left him underwater for a half a minute. His young body lying unconscious as lifeguards’ frantically attempt to resuscitate him. Eventually, they revived him and today he tells this as a turning point in his life and part of his story before the glory.

Experiencing this traumatic event could have left him with a fear of swimming, but his mother who nearly drowned herself trying to save him saw this as an opportunity to help him overcome his fear, thus creating the beginning of a hard-long journey to becoming a the first African-American to become an Olympic Champion Swimmer winning two silver and two gold medals.

Jones story is one of inspiration and for several years he’s partnered with organizations to do swimming workshops. Currently he’s partnered with Sigma Gamma Rho, an African-American Sorority and Swim USA for the Swim 1922 Program with the goal of increasing participation in swimming and decrease drowning among African-Americans.

Recounting the story of his life and how many in his swimming classes have had similar experiences as children he says, “When I tell my story I was surprised how common my story is, and while mine ultimately is of overcoming my fear and reaching for greatness for some this does not happen. They are crippled by fear not just of swimming but other things, so they never reach their full potential and I want to help change that.”

He also talks about how enthusiastic the women are and defy the myths of Black women not wanting to get in the water and messing up their hair. “It has been a lot of fun working with the ladies of Sigma Gamma Rho, we have had women, teens and young girls come out to learn how to swim and learn about water safety.”

Learning to Swim is Not Just Fun; It Can Save Lives

Swimming can be something that is done for fun, but it is also something that can save lives, as witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, where some of the deaths could have been avoided if more people knew how to swim. This problem has less to do with genetics and more with the history of racial segregation where Blacks were barred from public swimming pools and beaches.

Today while many of the institutional barriers have been struck down a large number of African-Americans especially children are more prone to accidental death from drowning than any other group. A 2017 Research Study at the University of Memphis and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas discovered that 64 percent of African-American children have no, or low swimming ability compared to 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children.

The Swim 1922 Initiative Goal is to try to decrease that gap. Recently, Jones was in New Orleans as part of the Essence Music Festival with the ladies of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority and Swim USA to do a swimming workshop for African-American women and girls at the University of New Orleans.

Jones is very familiar with the City and felt the workshop was very successful. “I have been here plenty of times at UNO. The women of Sigma Gamma Rho and their children also got in the water. It was a variety. There were parents who were saying if my kid can do it I can too. They would get in and it would motivate them. Kids saw their parents and vice versa, it went both ways. I hadn’t taught a class like this in a long time. I was excited to see how much they learned and grew and wanted to continue to get more lessons and you can’t put a price on that.”

Becoming an Example of Black Excellence

Jones and his road to excellence was not an easily paved one. Sometimes the only African-American competing, he was made to feel he did not belong. But he persevered with the encouragement of his parents and coaches. Recounting these times, he says, “It was lonely at times being the only Black and then not seeing anyone who looked like you are competing at a high level. It was something that was hard for me because there was no one on television that was successful enough for me to look up to at the time. There were people who tried to discourage me saying I should be playing basketball instead of swimming and I used all that as motivation to be not just good but the best.”

Today Jones is a filling that void he felt as a youngster and is inspiring the next generation not just African-American kids, but of all races, “To be in this position to be a role model for kids is a great feeling. On social media kids contact me asking how you did it I’m the only Black person on my team. I now know as I am getting older I am the person I was looking for back then in the sport; so, I take it very seriously, I show them the path that I’ve been on and follow so they can be successful as well.”

Continuing he stresses the value of deferred gratification and hard work. “In the modern world with social media, young people have so much more access than we did. I tell them while they may see the gold medals, the nice car the nice house, it took a lot of work to get there. I impress upon them it doesn’t happen overnight. The training I do; I am up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I tell them success is not given it takes hard work. And what I express to kids I take out the pages of “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours you can become an expert at something. I have done more than 10,000 hours working to become great at swimming.”

Sports, Politics, Race and Patriotism

As someone who has represented the United States on the Global Stage Jones says he is the ultimate patriot and loves his country and its veterans. His views on the controversy surrounding some NFL Players gives a rare glimpse of a thoughtful and measured response to something that’s led many to emotional rants that leaves our nation further divided. “I actually had a friend who did a project on this and it is my understanding that Colin Kaepernick sat down for the Anthem in the beginning and then Nate Boyer, a former player for the Seattle Seahawks and green beret wrote an open letter to him and suggested he take a knee like someone in the military would take before a fallen soldier as a sign of respect.”

Continuing he says further making his point, “And as someone who has been able to represent and be at the top of my game, representing my country I would never disrespect the flag. When I got my gold medal it was the most patriotic moment of my life. I sat up there and screamed the words National Anthem because I was so proud to be an America. But I did not think the kneeling is about the players intending to disrespect the flag but using this space and their visibility giving voice to police brutality and injustice and that’s been loss in this discussion. How to address these problems and come up with solutions.”

Inspiration, Resilience and the People of New Orleans

Jones has nothing but great things to say about the City of New Orleans and its people. “The citizens of New Orleans are extremely resilient. I have been here many times as I’ve come and been here for fun, been here for competitions. Every time I am here the people I meet that are from here are some of the warmest, nicest and giving people I’ve ever met. I will say they have been through so much and still find a way to get the most out of life. They are an inspiration to people all over the world and I would say to the people of New Orleans to never change that.”

Cullen Jones story is one that could have ended with a five-year-old who drowned or was afraid to ever take a plunge into the world and aspire to greatness. That is not the case of Cullen Jones. He, his story and his accomplishments and now his contribution to giving back shows his heart of gold as he inspires those to have the courage to take a swim into the ocean of limitless possibilities.

For information on swimming classes contact: or 504.658.3051 504.568.9622

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