Many black Americans can’t swim, and Olympian wants to change that

Members of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority listen to Olympic medalist Cullen Jones during a learn-to-swim clinic at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy on Saturday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman


Cullen Jones talks about the importance of learning to swim at a clinic Saturday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman


Segregation and fear have long kept many black Americans from learning to swim.

Blacks were historically denied access to public swimming pools and beaches. As a result, swimming never became ingrained in their culture.

In a 2017 study, researchers at the University of Memphis and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas found that nearly 64 percent of African-American children today have no or low swimming ability. That compares to 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children.

That point was driven home last weekend, when I dropped by Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy, where Cullen Jones, an African-American swimmer with two gold and two silver Olympic medals to his name, was teaching a learn-to-swim clinic for a group of African-American women.

Cullen Jones, right, works with a member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority at a learn-to-swim clinic on Saturday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

I listened in as Jones introduced himself and explained the importance of knowing how to swim to the women, who perched a little nervously on benches. The women ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s, and some of them had never gotten in a swimming pool before. Others had been in a pool, but weren’t confident swimmers.

I take my swimming skills for granted. I swim 2 or 3 miles with a U.S. Masters team four or five times a week. I love the water and feel comfortable there.

Not so the women of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, who faced their fears head on last weekend. As I watched, Jones encouraged them into the pool. He taught with humor and persistence, and reminded me that swimming is a life-saving skill we should all know, no matter our cultural background.

Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones nearly drowned when he was 5 years old. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

When class started, some of the women hesitated to even put their face in the water. Midway through the class, they were kicking across the water with a kickboard – a huge accomplishment, rewarded each time by cheers of support from their classmates.

I’d forgotten how that must feel – the uncertainty and fear of what the water holds.

The clinic was part of USA Swimming’s Swim 1922 program, a partnership between USA Swimming and the sorority, designed to increase swim participation and decrease drowning rates within the African-American community.

The 20 or so women at Saturday’s clinic listened intently as Jones, who grew up in the inner city of New York and New Jersey, explained that he got into swimming after nearly drowning at an amusement park when he was 5 years old. Lifeguards pulled him out of the water and performed cardio pulmonary resuscitation, saving his life. That experience spurred Jones’ mother enrolled him in swim lessons.

Members of Sigma Gamma Rho listen to Cullen Jones talk about the importance of learning to swim. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

“Swimming wasn’t something I was naturally drawn to,” he told the women.

He ended up loving it, and was good at it – so good that he eventually won a fistful of medals in relays and one individual freestyle event at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games.

He wanted to give back, and now teaches other African Americans to get involved in swimming through the USA Swimming program.

But why the discrepancy in swimming skills among racial groups? A couple of factors come into play.

“Sometimes we pass things on generationally,” said LaShonda Johnson, southwest regional director of Sigma Gamma Rho. “Income and access play a role. Some people just don’t have access, so they never learn.”

Cullen Jones works with a member of Sigma Gamma Rho on Saturday at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Knowing how to swim, she said, is important, and not just to reduce drowning rates. “It’s great for exercise and healthy living. This is something you can do forever.”

At Saturday’s clinic, Jones gently teased the women about one other reason some black Americans balk at the idea of getting in a pool – the effect of chlorinated water on hair.

“You all have swim caps on, so I don’t want to hear nothing about hair,” he told them.

Yolanda Castillo, chair of the local Swim 1922 program, told me she’s taken swim lessons before, but still harbors a fear of deep water. Some of her family members have never learned how to swim.

Some of the members of Sigma Gamma Rho who attended a learn-to-swim clinic on Saturday had never been in a pool. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

“When (Jones) said we can’t stand up in the pool, I felt a little anxious,” she said. But she knew she wanted to get over that, because she believes knowing how to swim could one day save a life.

Jones reminded the group that drowning ranks as the second leading cause of accidental death under the age of 14, behind car wrecks. He also noted that drowning rates are much higher among blacks than other ethnic groups. Children, he said, are four times more likely to learn how to swim if a parent knows how.

“Once you learn, it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget,” Jones said.

Author: Pam LeBlanc

Pam LeBlanc writes about fitness and travel for the Austin American-Statesman. She has worked for the Statesman since 1998 and written her weekly fitness column, Fit City, since 2004.

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