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Your lifestyle, your quirk
You don’t expect an Olympian to have almost drown, especially when that athlete competes in swimming. It turns out that at least two swimmers in the London 2012 Olympics nearly drowned as children, then turned the negative experience into a positive career. Not only have both gone on to compete in the Olympics, but both are spreading an interest in swimming, both for fun and for safety, in their home countries.
Cullen Jones was a member of the record-setting 4x100-meter relay U.S. team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This year he’s back to compete in the same event, as well as the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle. He clearly knows his way around the pool and is an accomplished swimmer; he is even the first African-American athlete to hold a record in the 4x100-meter relay. He wasn’t always such a skilled swimmer, though; he nearly drowned at a water park when he was five years old. He went down a ride in a tube but wasn’t heavy enough to keep the tube level, so the tube flipped and Jones fell into the water. He didn’t know how to swim.
He explained of the incident, “I was underwater, I couldn’t breathe … and then I completely passed out.” His mother, who also didn’t know how to swim, attempted to save him, but a lifeguard had to be summoned to rescue Jones while his father helped his mother. The lifeguard had to perform CPR to resuscitate the child. Because of the close call, Jones’s mother enrolled him in swimming lessons the same week. While he didn’t always feel cool “walking around in a little brief” in the area he grew up in, which he says “wasn’t the nicest area,” and being one of the few African-American kids at the pool, he stuck with swimming. It clearly paid off.
Not only is Cullen Jones on a mission to win medals, but he’s also aiming to reduce drowning deaths among African-American children. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that African-American children are three times more likely to drown than children of other races. This corresponds with the findings of a study by the University of Memphis and USA Swimming, which states that about 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim, compared with 40 percent of white children. Jones was stunned by the numbers, but he notes that his drowning makes him a statistic. In an interview with Rock Center, Cullen said, “I remember what it feels like to be underwater and I remember what it feels like to be helpless.” This lead him to travel the country with the Make a Splash initiative to tell his story and urge minority kids to learn to swim.
Karen Torrez, Bolivia’s flag-bearer in the London 2012 opening ceremony, got a similar start in her swimming. While on vacation in Chile when she was five years old, Torrez nearly drowned. She took swimming lessons and clearly mastered the water. When she first started swimming, she said, “Swimming was nothing in Bolivia. Now it is much more popular. I’m trying to show we can be good at sports other than soccer.” By spreading the popularity of the sport with her swimming skills, she may be inspiring other children to learn to swim. She’s competing in this year’s Olympics in the 100-meter freestyle.
Not every swimmer was a natural when they started out in the water. Even if you’re not a mermaid or merman, let these Olympian examples give you inspiration to take swimming lessons (at any age) and make sure that you stay safe around water.