Long before Cullen Jones became a world champion swimmer, world record holder and Olympic gold medalist, he nearly drowned at a water park at just 5 years old.

Jones’ parents immediately enrolled him in swimming lessons, yet it took five different swimming instructors to break through Jones’ fear of the water, he said. Even now as an Olympic swimmer, Jones still has moments of panic in the water.

“I empathize so much with the people that have had negative experiences in the water, but we can’t allow that to stop us from being safer in the water, especially when it comes to people of color,” Jones said. “In the Black and Brown communities, we are drowning much higher than any other race out there.”

Cullen Jones with young swimmers at the Goldfish school on May 16. Credit: Gina Castro

Black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Near-drowning experiences and fear in general are among the reasons people never learn how to swim, Jones said.

For Water Safety Awareness Month, Jones surprised 17 young swimmers Tuesday afternoon at the Goldfish Swim School on Dempster Street. The children erupted into cheers as Jones flashed his gold and silver medals from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Jones, a partner with Goldfish, flew to Evanston to share his story and advocate for life-saving swim lessons for all children.

The USA Swimming Foundation, Swim 1922 and the Rhosebud Club of Delta Xi Sigma are joining forces to reduce drowning rates in low-income communities of color. Swim 1922 was created by the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority to address race-based disparities in swimming. The Rhosebud Club is an affiliate of the sorority and focuses on girls between 8 and 11. The young swimmers at the Tuesday event are part of Sigma Gamma Rho’s two groups.

Goldfish is challenging children to take the Safer Swimmer Pledge this summer. The company will donate $1 to Swim 1922 for each pledge, of which there are five, the first of which is: “Whether I’m at home, the beach or pool, I will play it cool and follow the rules.” The donations will go toward swim lessons for children across the U.S.

Jones is the first Black American swimmer to hold a world record. He broke the U.S. record at the 2008 United States Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 21.59. Credit: Gina Castro

An estimated 64% of Black children and 45% of Latino children have little to no swimming ability, according to a study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis. That compares with about 40% of white children who don’t know how to swim.

The study identified four common reasons people don’t learn to swim. Fear is one of the reasons. A parent’s ability to swim also can affect whether a child learns to swim. 

Jones’ mom, who dived into the waterpark pool after Jones, can’t swim. A couple of years ago, Jones gave her a swimming lesson for Mother’s Day, but just recently she decided that she is committed to learning to swim.

“I think she was tired of people being like, ‘Your son’s an Olympian, and you don’t know how to swim?’” Jones said. “But she is now learning to swim. I get choked up because I’ve heard her for years list so many reasons why she can’t do it. Because she’s seen me become such a water-safety advocate, she is now hearing it, understanding it and saying enough’s enough. It’s never too late to learn.”

“What we really want to do is make sure that our children learn [to swim] at a young age, so that they don’t have a negative experience that they have to get over,” Jones said. Credit: Gina Castro

Jones enrolled his son in Goldfish swimming lessons when he was 6 months old.

Rhonda Cleveland, president of the Delta Xi Sigma Alumnae Chapter in Evanston, also enrolled her two daughters at Goldfish when they were 6 months old. 

Cleveland said it was important that her girls learn to swim because she never did.

“I have three older brothers, and I distinctly remember they threw me in a pool when I was in fourth grade,” Cleveland said. “After that, I was like, nope, not doing that.”

She hopes to enroll in some adult swim classes in the future, she said.

Access to swimming lessons is another obstacle. 

Jovon Corbin, the general manager of Goldfish in Evanston, learned how to swim in the Evanston Township High School pool. He was in sixth grade. 

“My family was able to take advantage of the youth programs that we had here,” Corbin said.

To reach families of all income levels, Goldfish offers several need-based scholarships and a scholarship fund called Goldfish Cares, Corbin said. If financial cost is keeping people from enrolling their children in swim lessons, Corbin said to reach out to Goldfish.

“I’m born and raised in Evanston,” Corbin said. “My kids, nieces and nephews swim these waters, my friends’ kids swim these waters, so this is more of a not just a job. But this is really the way that I would give back to our community.”

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. Thé key to water safety is not just swimming lessons. It’s accessibility to a pool, where kids can swim and just have fun in the water on a regular basis. Yes we have the lake, but it is more difficult to swim in open water until a person knows how to swim and is comfortable doing so. Wilmette and Skokie have beautiful pools, but they’re expensive for non-residents. Go for it, Evanston!

  2. Way to go Cullen Jones and great to see Goldfish get behind this incredibly important cause! I’m curious what Evanston plans to do to help advance this effort, which encompasses safety, diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as health. Currently, our city lacks any public swimming pools, and our high school, which has a storied swimming program, is in dire need of resources to renovate its aging aquatic center, which is now 65 years old. It’s time for us to step up and lead the way by investing in the development of pools and promoting greater accessibility to swimming for everyone.