Cullen Jones, only the second African American to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, is the first African American to win an Olympic Gold Medal for his performance in the team’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay. Amid all the well-earned acclaim for Michael Phelps’ historic accomplishments, like racking up eight gold medals in one Olympics for swimming, Jones’ historic first should be noted.

Cullen, Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale came in a hairsbreadth ahead of the favored French team to win.

Born in New York City, Jones moved to Irvington, N.J., at the age of 5. Jones took swimming lessons after a near-drowning incident. His talent went unnoticed until he swam the freestyle for North Carolina State University. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, Jones was the first Black American ever to hold or share a swimming world record in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.

The absence of African Americans and other people of color from certain Olympic sports has long been noted. Sports like swimming, skiing, ice skating, etc., that require expensive equipment and/or training facilities result in economic exclusion. Also, the United States has a racist history of outright exclusion of Blacks from beaches and swimming pools.

Cullen has helped to break a long-standing stereotype that African Americans are physically unsuited for swimming. This is important for a number of reasons, one of which is the encouragement and interest in the sport that will result in others, especially African Americans, learning to swim.

It is also a safety issue.

About 1,500 children drown each year in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, African American males over the age of 5 are 1.3 times more likely to drown than white males in the same age group. American Indians and Alaskan Natives are 1.8 times more likely to drown. This higher rate of drowning is due to the lack of facilities for safe swimming and swimming instruction. Where there are facilities, they are often overcrowded, making it difficult for lifeguards to observe all swimmers safely. On a hot summer day, unsafe bodies of water — unsupervised beaches, reservoirs, and rivers and streams with strong currents — are tempting and deadly, especially for non-swimmers.

It is recommended that all children over the age of 5 be taught to swim. An adult with no distractions whatsoever (no reading, watching TV, talking with others) should always supervise non-swimmers around all bodies of water whether it is the bathtub, a kiddie pool, a backyard pool or the beach.

Municipalities were once proud of their schools and recreation facilities, constantly making improvements and expanding programs. In the past 50 years or so, cities have drastically cut back on their recreation budgets. Urban and many small-town and rural school districts have slashed all programs including physical education and swim programs have been eliminated. If there are pools in schools or recreational facilities, maintenance is often abysmal with nasty, funky locker rooms, and pools are frequently closed because there are no chemicals to clean the water or the pumps are broken. There aren’t enough programs to train the number of lifeguards and swim instructors needed.

Let’s hope that Jones’ win makes more of a splash, both for his spectacular accomplishment and for the attention it might bring to access to swimming instruction and water safety. Hopefully there will be an increased demand for up-to-date sports and recreation facilities, including swimming pools with quality instruction programs in all communities and schools. What a great way to divert money from the war in Iraq to socially useful and necessary pastimes.