Before he became a world-class swimmer and the second African American to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport, Cullen Jones almost died in the water.
But now, Jones is on a mission to prevent other African Americans and minorities from experiencing what he went through as a child through his involvement in Make a Splash, the national child-focused anti-drowning initiative from The USA Swimming Foundation.
Many African-American parents fear allowing their kids in the water to learn how to swim, which is creating potentially deadly situations.
A study, commissioned by USA Swimming and conducted by the University of Memphis, found that nearly 70 percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have low or no swim ability. Only 40 percent of Caucasians are in the same predicament. Black kids are three times more likely to drown than white children.
The study also found that parental fear is the biggest factor in preventing African Americans and Latinos from learning how to swim.
“In my own family, a lot of people are afraid of the water or don’t know how to swim,” Jones said.
Fear even trumps finances as the main reason minority kids don’t learn how to swim.
“That was a stunning find,” Sue Anderson, director of Programs and Services in the Club Development Division of USA Swimming, told Aol Black Voices in an interview.
“Intuitively, the lack of access to pools or finances have been considered major factors. What we are finding now is some real deep fear on the part of parents. In most cases, the parents don’t know how to swim and the kids don’t know how to swim as well. It’s being passed down,” she said.
One parent from Denver told the survey-takers that she didn’t want to pay for swimming lessons for her child, because she was fearful of him getting in the water.
Anderson said she has been at competitive swimming events where black or Latino kids are participants and parents don’t even want to go near the water to serve as volunteer timekeepers.
Even more alarming is that there seems to be an epidemic of false confidence among African-American and Latino children. Of the 40 percent of children who said they knew how to swim in the survey, only 18 percent had taken swim lessons from a professional. Anderson says about 28 percent of Latino kids surveyed and 26 percent of African Americans say they taught themselves how to swim.
African Americans’ fear of water could be based on historical factors, such as segregated pools that sought to keep blacks out. Last year, 60 black and Latino campers were kicked out from a private Philadelphia swim club they contracted to use for the summer, because there was concern they would alter the “complexion” and “atmosphere” of the club. Jones said he was “appalled” by the incident.
Other factors, such as the myth that chlorine damages brown skin, men thinking they have to wear revealing bikini briefs and women and girls not wanting to mess up their hair by getting in the water, also create a reluctance to learn to swim.
When confronted with the chlorine myth, Jones said that he always talks about the benefit of lotion.
“If you’re ashy, that’s what they have lotion for. I’ve been swimming for 17 years and I’m not ashy all the time,” Jones said with a chuckle.
Anderson said the goal is to make swimming 35 to 40 percent minority. “Those gold medalists are out there,” said Anderson.
“We need more colors. We can’t just have one color. When you see Cullen talking to a crowd of kids, their eyes are like saucers. That message is very powerful,” she added.