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Olympic swimmer on mission to reduce drowning deaths among African-Americans

By Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones describes the pool as feeling like “home,” but it wasn’t always that way.  After nearly drowning as a 5-year-old child, Jones learned to swim and has made it his mission to reduce the startling number of drowning deaths among African-American children each year.

“I remember what it feels like to be underwater and I remember what it feels like to be helpless,” said Jones of the time he nearly drowned at a water park.  "I was underwater, I couldn’t breathe…and then I completely passed out.”

Now 28 years old, the freestyle sprinter is gearing up for the London Olympics after winning a gold medal four years ago in Beijing. While Jones’ swimming talent is remarkable, his near drowning experience is not.  A study by the University of Memphis and the USA Swimming organization showed that around 70 percent of African-American children don't know how to swim, compared to about 40 percent of white children.  African-American children between the ages of five and 14 are three times more likely than other children to drown, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When the African-American Jones first learned these numbers a few years ago, he was shocked. 

“I am also one of the statistics, because I almost drowned.  It seems like everything in my life was written on that page,” Jones said in an interview scheduled to air Thursday, July 26 at 10pm/9c on NBC. 

Jones still vividly remembers the moment he almost died.  He and his parents had left their New Jersey home for a day of fun at Pennsylvania’s Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom.  But at one point, his inner tube flipped over and he was underwater for 30 seconds.

“So I was holding on to this inner tube and I'm, like, flailing,” he said.

“My parents told me I was clinically dead,” Jones said.  “My mom was in tears.  My dad was trying to console her and the lifeguard was giving me CPR.”

Lifeguards performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to bring Jones back to life.  Jones’ mother, Debra, watched in horror. She couldn’t swim and was unable to help her son.  After nearly losing her only child, she decided to put Jones in swim classes within the week.  

Jones now travels the country with the Make a Splash Initiative, recounting his story to minority kids in hopes that he can raise the number of minority swimmers and consequently reduce the amount of drowning deaths.

Study shows fear of drowning keeps African-Americans out of water

 When Jones learned the most common reason African-American children don’t know how to swim, he was stunned.

“We always thought this was an income thing and then we started talking to more and more people.  It’s the fear aspect.  You have parents that have had traumatic instances in their lives and they project it onto their children and then they treat the water life fire-[it’s] hot, stay away,” Jones said.

University of Memphis Professor Carol Irwin conducted the first ever study on minorities and swimming.  When she and her team began their research, she heard many reasons for why some African-Americans don’t know how to swim.  The reasons ranged from the cost of lessons to access to pools to the worry some African-American women have about getting straightened hair wet. 

But the overwhelming  reason  was fear of drowning.  According to the study, that fear is keeping many African-American parents from putting their kids in swimming classes and that ultimately puts more kids at risk to drown.

“It has been a legacy of fear.  Parents have passed it down generation after generation and that came out loud and clear in our focus groups because we’d have grandmothers and mothers sitting right next to each other, you know, mother and daughter, and we’d find out that the grandmother didn’t allow the mother to learn how to swim because she was fearful herself,” Irwin said.

Shreveport drowning tragedy a ‘wake-up call’

Tragic drowning incidents, both those seen in the news and experienced personally, perpetuate the fear of water among some African-Americans.

The drowning deaths of six African-American teenagers in Shreveport, La., in 2010 prompted Jones to fight harder in his mission to promote minority swimming.

“When I heard about the Louisiana drownings, I was actually at a swim meet.  It was right before my 50-freestyle and my heart was so heavy that day,” Jones said. 

In August 2010, a group of teenagers headed to the Red River to cool off from the Louisiana heat.  Three of the teens, Latrell, Latevin and Ladarius, were Rena and Willie Blalock’s sons.

“All of the kids are really basically close,” an emotional Rena Blalock said.  “They spent a lot of time with each other.”

The brothers went with a group of siblings from another family to the Red River. Rena Blalock was at work and her husband was out of town.

Within minutes of arriving, a friend of the boys went wading into the river, but he got into trouble after he suddenly slipped into deep water.  He panicked.  Each of the Blalock couple’s sons tried to save their friend. They drowned, and so did  three teenagers from another family-Takeitha, JaMarcus and JaTavious Warner.

The Blalocks said that their sons did have swimming skills, but many of the adults present at the river could not swim. 

“It’s a wake-up call for people to know how to swim because if somebody is in trouble drowning, maybe you could help and, you know, it’d save another family from the pain that we had to suffer and go through,” said Rena Blalock.

For Jones, what happened in Louisiana serves as a constant reminder of why swimming for him is more than just a sport.

“It is so much bigger.  You’re saving your child’s life by giving them swim lessons,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Tamron Hall’s full report airs Thursday, July 26 at 10pm/9c on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.