Is Drowning an Issue of Race Among Children? What Cullen Jones Can Teach us

Daniel Johnson/AP

Copyright: Daniel Johnson/AP

How can Olympian, Cullen Jones, inspire children to learn to swim?

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman

What Powerful lessons can children learn from Olympian, Cullen Jones?

Watching Cullen Jones, along with his teammates, Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and anchor Jason Lezak set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle relay on Monday at the Beijing Games, you might be surprised to know that Jones is just the third African-American swimmer to medal in the Olympic Games, and only the second to win gold.

And competition is the least of our problems when it comes to African-American swimmers.

The New York Times published a disturbing article this week that laid it all out. First, in general, swimming is a problem such that in 2005, there were 3,582 unintentional drownings in the United States, or 10 per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death among children.

But even more tragic is that drowning and NOT swimming can actually be compounded by race such that:

the most worrisome statistics involve black children and teens ages 5 to 19, who are 2.3 times more likely to drown than whites in this age group. For children 10 to 14, the rate is five times higher.

In addition, nearly 6 out of 10 African-American and Hispanic children are unable to swim (almost twice as many as their Caucasian peers)!

What’s the problem here?

§ There once was a widely discredited theory about black people suffering from a “buoyancy problem” which made people think that black children couldn’t learn to swim.

§ Segregation kept black people out of pools and beaches and created generations of non-swimmers. This perpetuated the myth that African-Americans couldn’t swim.

§ While studies have shown that Africans were avid swimmers, slaves born into the United States were not allowed to swim because it could be seen as a means of escape.

What can an Olympian do?

The fate of the young African-American swimmer might be resting on the shoulders of Cullen Jones, who is dispelling the myths about black people and swimming as he enjoyed Olympic gold and showed himself as a great role model to all children.

I was told, ‘You could change the face of swimming by getting more African-Americans into swimming,’ ” Jones, 24, said. “At first I was like, ‘Really, me?’ I never got into it thinking I could do something like that, you never do. I just liked to swim.

Bank of America has stepped up to sponsor Jones as he teaches a series of clinics and meets in order to promote minorities to get back into the pool and learn to swim. Having nearly drowned himself as a child, he knows how important swimming lessons are and hopes to impart these all important lessons to the children he interacts with on his tour.

With the strength of the lessons children are learning through their Powerful Words Member Schools and the lessons they can learn in the swimming pool about staying safe and strong, who knows? Another Olympian might just be born!

Cullen Jones’ NPR interview

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