Olympic medalist making a splash in hopes of saving lives

Published: Sep. 18, 2013 at 2:20 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 18, 2013 at 2:55 AM CDT
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LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - We've watched him swim on the world stage and bring home Olympic gold, but that wasn't always the case for Cullen Jones.

"I almost drowned at the age of five. I was with my parents at an amusement park. I was fully supervised - there were lifeguards there and I was still able to go under water. A child can drown in only 20 seconds. And that is really just turning your head," said Jones.

Jones eventually learned to swim and competed in his first meet at the age of 8 years old.

"I got really competitive. I saw kids swimming and thought - oh, I can beat that guy - and started swimming. And I sunk like a rock my first practice. These kids I thought I could beat were tearing me up. I was never a child prodigy. I had to work hard," recalled Jones.

Hard work paid off for the New York native, who is now a four-time Olympic medalist -- two of those medals gold.

"It's an honor to be a part of the Olympic team. Just to make the team is amazing, but the experience of competing on that stage is awesome," said Jones.

During his off time, Jones is a part of the "Make a Splash" initiative, which teaches kids how to swim.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children under the age of 14.

70 percent of African American children cannot swim;
60 percent of Latino children cannot swim; and
40 percent of Caucasian children cannot swim.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2000 and 2007, the fatal drowning rate for African Americans, across all age groups, was 1.3 times that of Caucasians. The fatal drowning rate of African-American children, ages 5 to 14, is 3.1 times that of Caucasian children in the same age range.

Jones said he hopes to change those numbers one swim lesson at a time.

"It's a big, big issue. And it's a cultural thing to us. We just don't see swimming as being a life skill and that is what we need to change. And that is what this initiative is about in getting that perception to change, that it is important. You learn how to walk, you learn how to talk ... You definitely need to learn how to swim," said Jones.

With the basics covered, the young swimmers at Foreman-Reynaud Community Center get comfortable in the water.

"I like to jump and swim backwards," said Ja-el Wilson, 6 years old.

"My favorite part was floating on my back and jumping in the pool," said Danielle Breaux.

The swimmers eventually made their way to the deep end of the pool, each jumping in and swimming back to the side.

Learning from one of the best, who knows - they, too, could put in the time and bring home the gold.

"My advice to anyone who wants to get into competitive swimming - never be discouraged. Dare to be different. It's okay to do something different," said Jones.

The "Make a Splash" initiative is sponsored by Phillips 66 and the USA Swimming Foundation. Cullen Jones will soon start training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where he plans to retire from swimming.

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