HARLEM — Long before he won two gold and silver medals, Olympic champion Cullen Jones nearly drowned in a water park when he was 5 years old.
Jones, 29, owes his journey from near-death experience to top of the swimming world to hard work and to his mother, who immediately put him in swim lessons after the traumatic incident.
But with statistics showing that 70 percent of African-Americans don't know how to swim and that parental fear is the major factor, Jones is out to change the odds through Make A Splash, an anti-drowning initiative with the USA Swimming Foundation. The program kicked off its fifth national tour with a stop in Harlem Friday at P.S. 125 Ralph Bunche Elementary on West 123rd Street.
"Fear trumps everything," Jones said before jumping in the pool with a group of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds to teach them swimming basics. "We need to change the perception of swimming from an activity to a life skill."
In the water, Jones started off slow with the kids, teaching them how to blow air from their mouths and noses before progressing to dipping their head under water and, eventually, showing them how to float on their backs.
Some kids were frightened, holding on tight to Jones as he led them through the exercises. Others were bold, spreading their arms and legs while on their back to resemble a starfish.
"We really need to get everyone water-safe," Jones said.
It's not just African-Americans who have swimming deficiencies. About 60 percent of Latinos and 40 percent of Caucasians also cannot swim, according to a 2010 study from the USA Swimming Foundation. There also tends to be a false confidence among young people when it comes to their swimming ability.
Jones asked a group of 25 kindergartners and first-graders assembled at the pool who knew how to swim, and most of them raised their hands. But when he asked how many had actually taken lessons, the number of hands dropped dramatically.
Agnes Davis, president and CEO of swim, swim, swim I Say, isn't surprised. Her Harlem-based company teaches adults and children how to swim. Davis' company was the recipient of a grant from the Make a Splash Foundation that will allow her to provide low-cost swim lessons and scholarships in Upper Manhattan.
With her students, she finds that they have less experience with swimming if their parents don't swim.
"They have these fears that you will drown if you go near water," Davis said.
That's why Jones said he wants each child to come out of the lesson having learned something positive, whether it's how to float or putting their heads under water.
Dakari, 6, a kindergartner at P.S. 125, said his lesson with Jones was his third time at the pool.
"My mom and dad think it's too dangerous, but now they feel good," since he started lessons, Dakari said.
Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, said changing parents' attitudes is crucial.
"It's really important to address the parents' fears because that can translate down to the kids," she said
For some women of color, the concern is messing up their hair. Others have concerns with how they'll look in swim gear. There are solutions for all of those concerns, Jones said.
One in five fatal drowning incidents involve children under 14 — yet formal swim lessons reduce the risk of drowning among children by 88 percent, Jones said. Swimming lessons must become a normal part of every kid's childhood, Jones added.
"Swimming is something you can do throughout your entire life," Davis said. "It opens a big world."
Davis said young kids who see role models like Jones have an increased desire to learn to swim. Jones wore one of his Olympic gold medals, and let the kids touch it.
As he embarks on his fifth year with Make A Splash, Jones said he's beginning to see a change in attitudes. Children recognize him from the Olympics and some express an interest in swimming.
That's one of the reasons Jones, who contemplated retirement after last year's London Olympics, said he plans to compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. He barely missed the gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle in the 2012 Olympics.
"I'm going to be back," he said. "I'm going to get the gold."
In the meantime, Jones wants to continue to make a difference for children like Dakari.
"I'm going to train a lot so I can be a good swimmer," Dakari said as he shivered a bit under his towel after his swimming lesson.