Beaches and pools in and around New York City will be filled to the max over Memorial Day weekend, and a native son who knows a thing or two about swimming wants to be sure everyone can keep themselves safe around the water.
Cullen Jones, the Bronx-born swimmer and two-time Olympian with four medals to show for it, returned home this week as part of the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative. He emphasized the importance of New Yorkers, especially young ones, learning how to swim given that four of five boroughs are located on islands and with many pools throughout the city.
"No matter where I’ve gone, no matter what city, the first thing I ask [kids] is, ‘How many of you guys like to be in the water?’ " Jones told amNewYork on Tuesday in Manhattan. "There’s not one hand that doesn’t go up."
Make a Splash’s mission is to promote learning to swim and water safety, causes any world-class swimmer could get behind. They’re especially dear to Jones, who at age 5 suffered a traumatic near-drowning at a Pennsylvania theme park long before his rise as one of the top swimmers in the world.
"I had to be resuscitated," Jones said. "… It took me awhile to get back in the water. I was terrified of the water for a good three years. I went through five different teachers. I always have that in the back of my mind when I give swim lessons, that I get why many of these children are terrified of the water. My goal is to give them a positive experience so that they can continue."
Jones fully understands that not every young child will take to the water like a duck. But, drawing comparisons to children who don’t want to wear a seat belt or eat their dinner, he points out how vital it is to know proper swimming safety.
"If they’re 2 and 3 years old, they’re gonna cry. It’s gonna happen," Jones said. "It’s the parent’s job to motivate the child to continue to learn because you have to realize this is a lifesaving skill."
Jones’ journey from a young boy afraid of the pool to become the first African-American to set a world record in swimming was something he couldn’t have imagined growing up. In that time, he’s won Olympic gold in 2008 (4×100-meter freestyle) and 2012 (4×100-meter medley) and claimed a pair of silver medals in 2012 as well (50-meter freestyle and 4×100-meter freestyle).
"I grew up in the ‘hood, where that wasn’t something that I would be able to do," Jones said. "Be in the Olympics? Never."
As one of the most prominent black swimmers in the world, Jones acknowledges he is a role model and takes that status seriously. According to USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of African-American children "have little to no swimming ability." He recalled speaking with Meredith Vieira of "The Today Show" and being compared to Jackie Robinson, Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams for his place in his sport.
"That was something that was given to me by media. That was something that was given to me by coaches and kids and people who look up to me," Jones said. "I never started swimming to be a role model; I just did it because I loved it. That being said, I also understand the weight that comes with it, and I also have accepted the responsibility of it, to hold myself to a certain standard."
The 35-year-old Jones lived in the Bronx until moving to Irvington, New Jersey, at 4 years old, but many of his relatives still live in the borough as well as Brooklyn. Although the North Carolina State alumnus now resides with his wife Rupi in Charlotte, the city remains special to him.
"When I was here [in this area] I was always in New York," Jones said, "so I really feel like New York is my home."
Jones, who has not competed since last year and has not swum on the Olympic stage since 2012, stressed that he has not retired from competitive swimming. While he has not ruled out a run at qualifying for the 2020 Games in Tokyo in the 50-meter freestyle, he’s putting off the decision until after he and his wife welcome their first child — a boy to be named Ayvn — due this summer.
"He is my focus right now," Jones said. "I’ve given myself until September [to decide]. If I do go for 2020, it is only for the 50 free, so it’s really just about me being in the best shape possible."
As an expectant father and one of the faces of USA Swimming, Jones won’t waste any time getting his son used to the pool. He’ll start teaching Ayvn at 3 months.
"We’ve [Make a Splash] talked to a lot of providers about getting kids [trained] as early as possible. … "I’m a firm believer of 3 months because they’re already born out of water, they need to be able to continue to be acclimated and used to that water."
Jones encourages visiting the USA Swimming Foundation website to find nearby swimming lessons at "low cost or no cost, depending on where you are."
Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said four of the five boroughs are located on islands.