LONDON – After nearly drowning at a waterpark at age 5, Cullen Jones didn’t want to swim again. He wanted to play basketball. His mother, however, insisted he learn to swim.
When he was 8, Jones saw his first swim meet and decided to compete. Two decades later, Jones, 28, is a member of the USA Swimming team and a three-time Olympic medalist. He won a gold in Beijing in 2008 and two silver medals at the London games.
After the Beijing games, he was made aware of the drowning statistics in the U.S. and discovered African-Americans are three times more likely to drown than any other race. As an African-American, he wanted to change that.
“As an Olympic athlete, I feel like I can kind of stand on my soapbox and talk about how important it is for people to learn how to swim,” Jones said.
For the last four years, Jones has worked with the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Program, an initiative dedicated to drowning awareness and prevention – a huge issue in Arizona.
Jones has also partnered with his sponsor, Citibank, to raise funds for the cause. He is one of 13 Olympians participating in the company’s Every Step program. Citibank donated $500,000 to help the athletes give back to programs with causes that inspire them.
Tina Davis, director of sponsorships and marketing for Citi, said as a first-time Olympic sponsor the company wanted to do more than create commercials and put its logo on advertisements.
“We wanted to demonstrate in a real way that we were giving back to the athletes and the communities that these athletes come out of,” Davis said.
Though the money has already been donated, it has not yet been divided among the athletes. The Every Step program incorporates the input of fans through social media, allowing them to donate portions of the funds to whichever athlete they choose via “likes” on Facebook or retweets on Twitter.
The Make A Splash program travels throughout the U.S. teaching children about drowning and providing swimming lessons at little to no cost. Jones is proud of the impact the program’s work has on children.
“There’s no real reason for kids not to learn how to swim now,” he said.
Make A Splash has already helped more than 2 million children, reaching 1.2 million so far this year. But Jones said there is still work to be done.
“It’s a good start, it’s a step in the right direction,” Jones said.
“We want to make a dent in the drowning rates.”