For four-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones, coming down to Druid Hill Park to teach Baltimore youth how to swim wasn’t just a way to give them a way to cool down on a sweltering June afternoon.
It was a matter of life and death.
“People drown at an epidemic level. Ten people drown a day,” Jones said. “We have a way to fix that — swim lessons.”
For a free two-hour session (cut about an hour short by thunder) Saturday, Jones, five-time Olympic medalist Josh Davis and a handful of Baltimore City Aquatics instructors ran through different basics in the pool, from kicking to freestyle strokes.
“This is a unique area where you’ll have the top swimming recruits in the country, but you’ll also have a large number of kids who don’t know how to swim yet,” Davis said. “There’s so much more left to be done.”
Jones travels around the United States as part of the “Make a Splash Tour” under the USA Swimming umbrella to promote swimming in children, especially African-American youth. Over 10 years, the tour has reached six million children.
After he won gold alongside Olympic great Michael Phelps in 2008 in Beijing, USA Swimming came to Jones to ask him to become an ambassador for the sport nationwide.
“They showed me the statistics, that 70 percent of African-Americans didn’t know how to swim,” said Jones, the first African-American to hold a world record in swimming.
Everyone surrounding Jones in his hometown of Irvington, N.J., played more traditional sports, like basketball.
“I thought about my friends and family, who’d ask me, ‘You still doing that swimming thing?’ ” he said. “They’re not safe around the water. We go on vacation, they’re like, ‘I’m not touching that water,’ and I’m there doing backflips.”
Swimming came to Jones as a necessary reaction to a near-death experience. While splashing around in a Pennsylvania water park at age 5, Jones nearly drowned to the point of needing resuscitation — which he told the four dozen children gathering around him before they jumped into the pool Saturday.
“I don’t want this next generation to have to go through that,” Jones said. “I want to change ‘black people don’t swim.’ Yes we do. We just need to learn and have these lessons.”
Picking Druid Hill Park demonstrated how far the city of Baltimore has come in caring for its black youth as well as why there is such a racial disparity in swimming to begin with.
Until 1956, Druid Hill Park’s pool was whites only. And just like swimming pools across the nation, restricting black children from places they could learn to swim developed into the statistics and stereotypes that exist today.
That’s why to Jones, showing young Baltimoreans how to handle the water goes beyond gaining the ability. Seeing someone who looks like them at an impressionable age, interacting with each individual one-on-one during the meet-and-greet and letting them wear his gold medals has power.
“That Tiger Woods, Serena-Venus Williams syndrome? I’d like to think so,” Jones said. “When I saw Tiger Woods play golf, I picked up a club. When I saw the [Williams] sisters, I very badly picked up a tennis racquet. And now we’re starting to see more and more people of color become amazing top swimmers, like Simone Manuel, Reece Whitley. We’re seeing the culture starting to represent what more of the U.S. looks like — multicultural.”
Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, has seen the idol effect for herself.
“What’s really fun is watching someone like Cullen walk in a facility with a bunch of diverse young athletes and realize there’s someone with the same skin color as themselves,” she said.
In his 10 years taking swimming on the road, Jones notes that “Make a Splash” has started to gradually shift the tide.
“I’m proud to say that number has changed a little,” he said. “Sixty-four [percent] for African-Americans. … The needle is moving. Never thought it would happen in my lifetime.”
For parents grinning poolside, recording their offspring’s progress on their iPhones, the clinic will have a significant impact on bettering their kids’ lives.
“We take them to the [YMCA] a lot, but it’s the first time they’ve had real instruction from anyone other than us,” said Baltimore resident Siddeeqah Fichman, whose daughters Eva, 8, and Gaya, 5, stepped into the pool with Jones.
Fichman plans to show her children clips of Jones swimming in the Olympics so the gravity of the afternoon will really land.
“For them, I don’t know that they get it yet,” she said. “But for me, I was really into gymnastics growing up. If I’d been able to see Nadia Comaneci growing up, it would have meant everything to me.”
Every child that took part in the clinic will receive deeply discounted swimming lessons through Baltimore City Aquatics of Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, as part of a discount program the department already runs to encourage more kids into the water. Midway through the lessons, the USA Swimming Foundation presented Baltimore City Aquatics with a check for $2,500 to ensure they’d have the funding to do so.
“One thing we say is that a parent putting a kid into swimming lessons is just as important as putting a kid in a car seat,” Hesse said. “Just as no parent would think of putting their kids in a car without a car seat, drowning is the second-leading cause of [unintentional] death for kids under 14. We don’t want kids to die anymore.”