Black Olympic swimming champ already inspiring minorities to dive in for lessons

Cullen Jones celebrates with teammates Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale after Team USA's gold-medal relay performance.
REUTERS/Jerry Lampen
Cullen Jones celebrates with teammates Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale after Team USA’s gold-medal relay performance.

When U.S. Olympian Cullen Jones (PDF) last week became the first African-American to hold or share a world record in swimming, he created ripples a world away here in the Twin Cities.

“I’ve talked to a lot of [African-American] parents whose kids are going to join the swim team” as a result, said Deanna Smith, director of aquatics for the downtown Minneapolis and North Community YMCAs. Jones has inspired them, and “the kids are getting very excited,” she said.

Jones’ performance — he swam a leg of the 4×100 freestyle relay in Team USA’s gold-medal victory — also will likely increase the number of kids who sign up for the North Community Y’s free water-safety league next summer. Completing its second year, the league aims to drown-proof urban kids of color, teaching them basic water-safety skills. The North Community Y also offers swimming lessons on a sliding-fee scale.

It’s vital that kids learn to be safe in the water, Smith said, noting that local statistics on that score are pretty grim. “Minnesota has the highest percentage of youth drownings in the nation,” a majority of them African-Americans, Smith said.

Nationwide, nearly six of every 10 African-Americans are non-swimmers, and African-American kids ages 5 to 14 are nearly three times as likely to drown as their white peers, according to recent statistics from USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body, cited in a recent article on

Latinos also are far more likely to be non-swimmers, the article said. The reasons: lack of role models and cultural “baggage.”

Jones is kind of the Tiger Woods of his sport, emphasizing to kids of color that they can excel at sports other than football and basketball. It’s an important lesson because historically, African-American kids have not learned to swim.

For years, there’s been a myth floating around the nation that blacks can’t swim as well as others because of a lack of buoyancy. Tell that to the black recreational swimmers of the Caribbean.

Then, as in the case of black baby-boomers, there’s a fear of water that many of our parents passed on to their kids.

And finally, in the case of African-American girls and women, there’s the hair thing. Black hair is difficult and expensive to manage. No one wants to spend $50 for a shampoo and style at a salon, only to go in the pool and see the results ruined. Guilty!

But hey, let’s put it into perspective. What’s more important, your hair or your life? And all parents should set positive examples for their kids.

Smith wears her hair in a short natural style. “All I need is a brush and some gel,” she said. Her 7-year-old daughter, Alanna, wears her hair in twists. My 9-year-old daughter wears her hair in braids during the summer when she’s in the pool the most. 

So come on, black parents. We need to dive in ourselves, but it’s essential that we get our kids out there and break the cycle of African-Americans who can’t swim. It not only will help to keep us safe in the water, but it’s excellent exercise that we can pursue long after participation in some sports is a distant memory.

As Smith says, “swimming is a sport for a lifetime.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Kie Ransom on 09/02/2008 - 07:46 am.

    I would just like to say thank you for pointing out there was a Black swimmer that helped the Americans win the gold medal in the 4 X 100m freestyle relay. As, an American black woman, swimming coach, mother and life long swimmer; I had tears in my eyes as Cullen Jones swam. It meant more to me than Micheal Phelps wins 8 gold medals. It been a long time coming and I work very hard everyday to make sure we will have more black swimmers join Mr. Jones in the next four years in London.
    Kiesha Ransom
    St. Croix, USVI

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