ABOVE (bottom right): Olympic Swimmer Cullen Jones (Photo by Medron White/Forward Times)
Drowning is the No. 1 Cause of Death for Children 1-4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett is mourning the loss of his 2-year-old daughter Arrayah, who drowned last month. Officers responded to Barrett’s home in the Beach Park area just before 9:30 a.m. on April 30th, in reference to a child who had fallen into a swimming pool at the house. Doctors were unable to revive the girl, who died at a local hospital. Barrett paid tribute to his daughter in an emotional Instagram post. “I miss you sooo much,” he wrote on May 11.
This tragic loss highlights the importance of water safety and drowning prevention. As summer begins, more and more children (and adults) head to local pools to cool off. Or they may relax in their own pools at the family home. But every summer brings more heartbreaking reports of young children who drowned in family or community pools. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children 1-4 and the No. 2 cause for children aged 5-14.
Racial disparities exist in these drownings: Black children aged 5-9 are 2.6 times more likely to drown than their white counterparts; those aged 10-14 are 3.6 times more likely to drown. This is partly because they’re less likely to know how to swim. In fact, a 2007 study commissioned by USA Swimming and the University of Memphis found that 60 percent of African American children don’t know how to swim.
Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones is working to change that. Jones is an ambassador for USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” campaign, which promotes water safety and the importance of learning to swim for youth. He’s traveled for years on the “Make a Splash” tour, which visits cities across America to raise awareness.
Jones himself nearly drowned as a child. Jones was in Allentown, Pennsylvania when an inner-tube ride nearly turned tragic. “I was at a water park with my parents,” he recalls. “We happened to be in Pennsylvania to go to the park and I’m going down this ride…”
Jones did not yet know how to swim but persuaded his parents to let him try a water slide that propelled inner-tube riders into the water. “I was a tall 5-year-old but very thin. Ended up flipping upside down,” he remembers. When he hit the bottom of the pool, he was holding on to the inner tube, upside down.
“I was holding on to the inner tube, hit the pool of water at the bottom, and because of the force, kind of flipped to the side and I couldn’t hold myself up. And because I was underneath it, I couldn’t push it up and I didn’t know to bounce off the bottom and jump off or swim from the other side. I didn’t know what to do. I was in full panic mode. Five years old and not having formal swim lessons.”
Even with lifeguards and parental supervision, his lack of swim training nearly proved fatal. “I had not had formal swim lessons. Most of the time that we hear stories about this, people are horse-playing or doing something they’re not supposed to be doing. Or they’re unsupervised.
I was totally supervised by lifeguards and my parents, and I was still able to go underwater. That’s why it’s so important,” he says. “Especially in the age of socials.”
Drowning is a silent killer and can happen in mere seconds —most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time, according to the Present P. Child Drowning Study. Jones (now a parent himself) realizes how quickly children can drown. “As a parent now, you think about it. It’s just that quick when you get a text message or you’re on your watch; you’re getting notified in many ways and it’s taking your attention away. I nearly drowned in the ‘90s and that was well before social media so it’s so, so important that we understand the importance of lessons because we have so many distractions.”
Thankfully, in this pre-social era, quick thinking helped save Jones’s life. Cullen’s father, Ron Jones, had to jump in and pull him out of the water. Lifeguards performed CPR on Cullen, who was unconscious. He coughed up a pint of water before taking his next breath. He had blacked out.
Within days, Cullen’s mother took action. “My mom got me signed up for swim lessons. It took five different teachers. I was so terrified of the water at that point,” he said. “It took me a while to get comfortable.” He became an age-group swimmer at the Jewish Community Center in New Jersey and went on to join the Jersey Gators Swim Club. At age eight he started swimming competitively and realized he enjoyed it. He joined the swim teams at St Benedict’s, a college preparatory Catholic School, and at North Carolina State where he represented the NCAA his senior year.
Eventually, he realized he wanted to pursue swimming as a career. At the Pan-Pacific Championships in 2006, Jones was a member of the U.S. men’s team that set a new world record in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay. The win made Jones the first Black American swimmer to hold a world record in swimming. He went on to make the 2008 Olympic team, joining Michael Phelps on the team that won a gold medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. At the 2012 Olympics, Jones won two silver medals (for the individual 50-meter freestyle and 4×100 freestyle) and a gold (as part of the 4×100-meter medley relay that again included Phelps).
Cullen Jones turned a near-fatal drowning into a successful swimming career — and then devoted his time and efforts to help other children avoid similar danger. After winning gold in 2008, Jones became a spokesperson for USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” campaign promoting water safety. The “Make a Splash” tour visits cities across America to raise awareness about the importance of learning to swim. The tour, which started in Houston years ago, came full circle on May 3, when it visited Northside High School. The mission is clear: “The major focus is to try to combat these drowning rates. The drowning rates are astronomical. The CDC listed this at an epidemic level,” Jones says. “Over 10 people drown a day, so it’s a big problem.”
He emphasizes the importance of water safety tips. The first: Expose children to water early. Jones advocates teaching kids to be responsible around water, instead of avoiding it entirely. “There’s just so many people who think, ‘Oh, it’s OK just to not learn.’ They think, ‘If I just stay away’…. No. It’s got to be a part of your development.
And for our older folks, it’s never too late! It’s never too late to learn how to swim. My mom was learning at 60. I taught her a couple years ago, on Mother’s Day. I had her in the pool and I was in tears. She’s now going against the fear that she had, that was transplanted onto her.”
Which leads to the next tip: Get in the water with your children. If a parent can’t swim, their child has only a 19% chance of learning how. Jones joined his son Ayven in the water before he turned three. “When Ayven was little, we would just get in the pool and sing ‘Wheels on the Bus’ with him and blow bubbles in the water,” Jones shared. “Eventually, he just started putting his face in the water on his own because he got acclimated with us.”
Finally, Jones advocates getting your child professional swimming lessons. Even after his retirement in 2020, Jones continues to work with USA Swimming and the “Make a Splash” campaign, which can connect parents to affordable swim lessons for their children. Cost can be a barrier: 79% of children in families with household incomes less than $50,000 a year have little or no ability to swim. But Jones says that doesn’t have to stop you: “Thanks to USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66, most of the lessons are low-cost or no cost. You just have to sign up.”
“On USASwimmingFoundation.org, you can sign your child up — or another child that you know — to get swim lessons. There are local partners in all 50 states,” he says. “What I want people to do is: let this be a spark that gets them excited about learning to swim, and then it doesn’t take much work. You just have to go online. We’ve got phones and laptops and iPads and all of these different devices. So go in there and try to look because you’re saving a child’s life. You’re saving someone else’s life. You understand how important it is to learn to swim? Teach someone else. Get them to swim, because you’re saving lives. The biggest thing that we want people to understand is the importance [of lessons], but also that we are here to help as a resource,” he says. “All you have to do is sign up.”
https://www.usaswimming.org/foundation is where people can learn more information and sign their child up for swim lessons. You can also go to usaswimming.org/makeasplash, put in your ZIP code, and see where you can learn to swim in your area (and if there’s free or reduced cost swim lessons).