MURRELL COLUMN: Golden advice: Olympic champions spread awareness of swimming safety

Published 12:07 am Friday, April 22, 2016

NEDERLAND — The time when Cullen Jones was 5 and in a swimming pool in his hometown of Irvington, New Jersey, was the moment that changed his life forever.

“Swimming wasn’t something that I was exposed to at a young age until my near-drowning,” he said.

“I was at an amusement park. I was fully supervised. There were lifeguards. My parents were there. It wasn’t like I was just goofing off or anything. I had people around me.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Still, little Cullen nearly lost his life that day.

At 15, he was debating what sport to go out for in high school. Basketball was in his mind because his father played. Then there was swimming because he was good at it.

Had it not been for that moment at 5, Jones might not have chosen the latter.

There wouldn’t be Olympic gold medals for him in the 4×100-meter freestyle and medley, or silver medals in the 50-meter freestyle or 4×100 free. There wouldn’t be two world championships in the 4×100 free.

But Jones won those medals. It sure helped he learned to swim.

On Thursday, Jones made sure those who attended a town hall meeting at Central Middle School on swimming safety knew his story.

Rowdy Gaines was there, too. He and Jones held a small clinic for youngsters inside the school’s natatorium before the meeting to teach them how to swim.

“There were four swimmers that came in,” Jones said. “They were a little timid around the water. At the age of 5, I almost drowned, so I kind of understand that, and I bring that into my teaching lessons.”

The USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 made it possible for the Olympic champions to visit Nederland through its Make a Splash Tour, which has made similar stops in Houston and Katy.

The statistics on drowning, which the foundation provided, are alarming:

• Approximately 10 people drown every day in the U.S., with nearly 25 percent children younger than 14 (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention);

• 70 percent of African American children and 60 percent of Hispanic/Latino children cannot swim (according to the foundation and the University of Memphis);

• only 19 percent of kids who come from a non-swimming household will ever learn to swim;

• the rate of drownings among African-American children is nearly three times higher than Caucasian children (according to the CDC); and

• most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than 5 minutes and were in the care of one or both parents at the time (according to the Present P. Child Drowning study).

Through more than 750 “Make a Splash” local providers across the U.S., the foundation has provided lessons for almost 4 million children nationwide either for free or at a reduced cost, according to a release.

“When you teach a child how to swim, the prevented rate becomes 88 percent,” Jones said. “It’s a huge difference. So, we’re really trying to break that cycle [of drownings due to a lack of knowledge of how to swim]. …

“It’s unfortunate what’s been happening in Houston, obviously, with this natural disaster and all this water. If it’s not a wake-up call to learn how to swim, I don’t know what is.”

Gaines’ story to swimming greatness didn’t start out the same way Jones did, but the native Floridian can relate to finding his best sport in high school.

“I really wasn’t that great when I started in 10th grade,” Gaines said, adding he failed to make the other sports teams at his school. “But in Florida, everybody knew how to swim. My family and I were always around lakes and rivers.”

As told by Gaines, an Auburn swimmer discovered him one day and asked the coach to keep an eye on him because he was talented. Sure enough, Gaines swam for Auburn in college and won five NCAA championships.

He made the 1980 Olympic team that didn’t go to Moscow. Four years later, he won gold in the 100 free, 4×100 free and 4×100 medley in Los Angeles.

Gaines expects to be behind the NBC microphone for his seventh Olympiad as Jones tries to match his number of gold medals. First, Jones has to secure his ticket to Rio de Janeiro in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, set for June 26-July 3 in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life, especially on land,” Jones, now 32, said. “We’ll see in the water.”

Whether Jones is destined for another trip to the Olympic podium, a little lesson has gone along way for him.

I.C. Murrell can be reached at 721-2435 or On Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

email author More by I.C.