In a contemporary sports world where athletes rarely endorse causes outside their own financial interests, Cullen Jones swims against the current. For this U.S. Olympic swimmer, his largest personal gains have come through serving the greater good.
You might remember Jones from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he helped the U.S. 4x100-meter freestyle relay team to a first-place finish and became the second African-American ever to win a gold medal. Rather than cash in on his golden moment, he used his medal as a prop to sell parents and kids -- black ones in particular -- on the life-saving benefits of swimming lessons.
Now 26, the 6'-'5", 210-pound Jones barnstorms the country as the face of USA Swimming's Make a Splash campaign. When he isn't spending hours in city pools teaching kids how to swim, he's traveling from his training base in Charlotte, NC, to Washington, D.C. to convince lawmakers that lives could be saved with a nationwide investment in children's "waterproofing" programs, in which kids are taught to swim in order to minimize their chances of drowning.
Nearly 4,000 Americans drown every year and a large number of them are kids. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death in children from ages one to 19, and it kills almost three kids a day in the U.S. About half of the victims are older than four, the age at which the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children start swimming lessons. The problem is even more acute for black kids.
According to a 2010 USA Swimming survey of more than 2,000 children across the country, nearly 70 percent of black youngsters between the ages of six and 16 have "low or no" swimming skills. (That's almost twice the figure for whites.) As a result, black children five to 14 are almost three times as likely to die from drowning as white kids. Black boys -- who drown at twice the rate of African-American girls -- are most at risk. Incidents like the one that happened last August in Shreveport, La., in which six teens drowned while playing unsupervised in the Red River hardly inspire confidence among black parents, many of whom harbor a fear of the water that dates back generations.
Jones himself was nearly a statistic. When he was five years old, he visited a New Jersey waterpark with his parents and almost drowned after he lost control of his innertube while descending a steep slide. Three days later, his mother enrolled him in beginner swimming lessons at their local YMCA. The classes sparked a competitive fire that would fuel him to unlikely prosperity in a sport that still carries a whites-only reputation.
His gold-medal breakthrough not only made Jones a beacon for kids who look like him, it also gave him a platform to advocate for waterproofing programs. His lobbying efforts have yielded $400,000 for a federal pilot program in northern New Jersey and could bring in even more funds for programs across the country if lawmakers approve an increase in the Center for Disease Control's budget for drowning prevention.
More than saving lives, Jones gives those who once feared water the courage to immerse themselves in a sport they can enjoy for as long as they're able-bodied. That's makes Cullen Jones a Sportsman of the Year worth endorsing.