Near drowning episode sparks Olympic champion's efforts to save lives

Near drowning episode sparks Olympic champion's efforts to save lives


By Greg Bach

Drowning remains the second leading cause of accidental death of children in the United States – and Olympic champion swimmer Cullen Jones came perilously close to being part of those grim numbers as a child.

At age 5 his parents took him to a water park in Allentown, Pa. On one of the rides his tube flipped over – he was submerged for about 30 seconds – and lost consciousness.

“I didn’t have swim lessons at that time and I ended up flipping upside down on that ride and they (park staff) had to resuscitate me,” Jones says. “That’s one of the biggest reasons why I’ve done so much work in my professional career in trying to give back.”


Jones is deeply involved in the USA Swimming Foundation’s wonderful “Make a Splash” initiative, which since 2007 has given nearly 5 million children the gift of free or low-cost swim lessons. Make a Splash works to provide every child in America the opportunity to learn to swim – regardless of race, gender or financial circumstances.

As Jones travels the country he hears the horror stories involving water and children who haven’t been taught how to swim.

“I hear so many different stories and I definitely relate to a lot of them because I was that child,” he says. “I was almost part of the statistics that we are trying to fight.”

The numbers are alarming: 70 percent of African American children cannot swim; 60 percent of Latino children cannot swim; 40 percent of Caucasian children cannot swim; and children are only 13 percent likely to learn to swim if their parents don’t know how to swim.

On average one child a day under the age of 5 drowns in a pool and more than 2,500 are annually treated in hospital emergency rooms each year for near-drowning incidents. Some of these submersion accidents result in permanent brain damage.

“Children have told me ‘I was at a friend’s birthday party and one of my friends pushed me in because I told him I could swim when I really didn’t know how and I went underwater and someone had to save me’ or ‘my crazy uncle thought that if I just started kicking I would just be able to swim to the side,’” Jones says.


Swimming lessons can reduce the likelihood of drowning by an astounding 88 percent. 

“I was at practice this morning and I kind of take it for granted because swimming for me is like walking,” Jones says. “I get in the water and just go, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t know how to swim and it is a debilitating fear for many people. And I know the problem that we are having with drownings is something that can be solved.”

Following Jones’ near drowning incident his parents enrolled him in swimming lessons.

“I was terrified,” he admits. “It actually took me awhile to get into swimming. I have to give a lot of credit to my mom because I was not very receptive. She said I loved being in the water, like the bath tub, but I was kind of nervous about big bodies of water. But she got me lessons with three or four different teachers and I started to feel a little bit more comfortable and that’s when she said I started to kind of take to the water again.”

Did he ever.

He’s had a spectacular career: at the 2012 Olympic Games in London he won a gold medal as part of the 400 medley relay and silver medals in the 50 free and 400 free relay; and at the ’08 Olympic Games in Beijing he won gold as part of the world record setting 400 free relay team.

“I know that we have reached over 4 million kids now so those children will teach their children to love swimming and we’re starting to break that cycle of parents not knowing how to swim and generationally hopefully down the line the work will multiply,” Jones says. “I want to see more and more children learning to swim and more and more adults getting their children into swimming, and seeing some of the adults getting in too. It’s never too late.”

Cullen Jones Drowning Swimming Olympics Parents

Related Stories

Subscribe to get the latest news