By Tamron Hall
NBC News Anchor
It was a rainy, unseasonably cold day in Knoxville, Tenn. I was told the week prior was a southern scorcher. When I arrived to meet Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones for our piece on not just swimming, but his mission to save lives, I was instantly struck by the number of people waiting in line to meet him and the rest of the USA Swim Team. Many of them appeared to be locals. Some were likely part of summer camps taking advantage of the rare chance to see the stars of the USA swim team. The flashing camera phones and homemade signs where held by screaming fans who appreciated this rare moment. The line was never-ending.
Cullen approached our cameras with the smile of a young boy looking forward to Christmas day. I know that sounds cheesy or even cliché, but it’s the best way to describe the look of this highly-trained competitor whose big moment at the London Olympics was drawing near.
My most compelling time with Cullen was yet to come. When he is not training, Cullen spends a great amount of time teaching African-Americans, young and old, how to swim. Black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Cullen has made it his mission to teach as many children to swim as he possibly can.
For me it was a chance to confess to Cullen and everyone else around, I can’t swim. I am one of the statistics. When I shared my fear of being immersed in water with Cullen, he embraced the challenge and said, “Give me a day, I will have you swimming.”
We didn’t have a day, but with the time we did have, Cullen got me in the pool and began to teach me the basics of breathing under water. One try, then two, then three, then four…. Each time I felt a different sensation. At one point I felt confident, at another I felt pure fear beyond anything I can describe. We kept trying. Hey, when you have an Olympian as a coach, you can’t give up! I promised him I would learn to swim. We didn’t set a timeline, but I am hoping after the Olympic games, I can reach this goal…not gold.