The statistics are chilling: Nearly six of every 10 black Americans can’t swim, and African-American kids ages 5-14 are nearly three times as likely to die of drowning as their white counterparts. Cullen Jones, the first black American to hold a long-course swimming world record, wants to change that.
“I know there's a big stigma — in the U.S. black people don’t swim,” Jones told TODAYshow.com. “But if you go to the Caribbean, it's unheard of for people not to know how to swim. If you go to Africa, black people do know how to swim. But it's just a big stereotype here. And that's one thing that I want to work and change.”
The statistics on swimming were compiled recently by USA Swimming, the governing body for the sport. And one of the reasons cited for the dismal figures on minority swimmers — Hispanic-Americans are also far more likely to be unable to swim and to drown at an early age — is lack of role models.
To spread swimming to minorities, USA Swimming has started the Make a Splash Foundation, and Jones is its poster child.
Born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, Jones burst upon the world scene by winning the 50-meter freestyle at the Pan Pacific Games. He was voted Newcomer of the Year in his sport, signed a big promotional deal with Nike, and continued to work his way to the No. 3 ranking in the world at 50 meters.
Jones knows all about the dangers of drowning. He learned how to swim as a child when he drowned — CPR, oxygen, the whole nine yards to save his life — when the inner tube he was riding in a water park flipped over and he couldn’t swim free. After that experience, his parents enrolled him in swimming lessons. He also took gymnastics and martial arts, but by the age of 6, it was obvious he was going to be too tall for gymnastics. Told to pick another sport, he settled on swimming.
Living in the racially mixed New York-New Jersey area, Jones never ran into the stereotypes about blacks not being able to swim. What started as something he loved to do because it was fun turned into a way to make a living. Along the way, he’s breaking stereotypes.
“Not many black people played golf before Tiger Woods,” he noted.
‘Parting the waters’Now, as he trains for Beijing and the Olympics, Jones and his girlfriend, fellow African-American swimmer Maritza “Ritz” Correia, are making a documentary movie, “Parting the Waters,” about their own rise as swimmers and the lives of the pioneering blacks who preceded them.
“I am not the first,” the 24-year-old Jones told TODAY. “There are a lot of people. Byron Davis, Maritza, Brielle White. There are a lot of African-Americans that have kind of helped trail blaze this sport. I was the first to get a long-course world record, which got a lot of notification.”
That record was in the 4X100-meter freestyle relay in 2006.
Anthony Ervin, another black American, shared the 50-meter gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games with fellow American Gary Hall Jr. Ervin, Jones said, was uncomfortable bearing the torch for an entire race, but Jones said he’s willing to take on the job. “The drowning rate being African-Americans and Latins three times more than any other race, that's a problem,” he said.
Through his example, Jones told TODAY, “I'm hoping that a lot of people will decide to put on some trunks. They don't have to be briefs. But put on trunks and learn how to swim.”
Why should kids look up to him?
“I think that's their choice,” he said. “I have a great work ethic. I wouldn't be here if I didn't. And I've learned a lot and I have a pretty good story to tell, I think.”
It’s the same story that white kids who have become swimmers have been hearing for generations, the story that all kids following all sports hear from their heroes: To get where you want to go, you have to set goals and be willing to put in the work to get there. Jones is an example of the rewards that come from all the effort.
“I've always set goals,” he told TODAY. “Set goals that you can be adamant about, something that you really want to accomplish. Even if it seems, you know, like you can't do it. Just always set it. Work toward it. You know, if you want to get perfect A’s and you're an F student — OK. But you have to take little bites to get to it. Work your way up.”
To help kids, he and Correia intend to establish their own foundation after the Olympics to award scholarships to deserving minority kids. Right now, though, there’s Beijing to work toward, and that’s something that consumes all of his time.
He smiles easily, and that, he said, is the best thing his parents taught him — to present himself well.
“My parents always believed in the fact that, whenever you leave the house, you're representing the family. So I always am, a lot of the guys on the national team make fun of me. They're like, ‘Oh, he’s gonna go upstairs and change a shirt and take a half an hour to do it ’cause he's gonna take a shower and everything.’ ”
Jones laughs at himself, but makes no apologies.
“I want to look presentable,” he said. “And that's one of the things my parents really harped on. And I think a lot of people in New Jersey do the same. And I know, New York, they do the same thing — you dress to impress.”