Cullen Jones, only the second African-American to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, is the second 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’ accomplishments racking up gold medals for swimming, Jones’ historic achievement should be noted.

Jones, Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale came in a hair’s breadth ahead of the favored French team to win. Cullen’s leg, the third of the relay, was a crucial element. The team came in first just ahead of the French, who were favored to win. The relay team’s gold also helped Phelps in his quest to set a record of eight Gold Medals.

Born in New York City, Jones moved to Irvington, N.J., at the age of five. Jones took swimming lessons after a near-drowning incident. His talent went unnoticed until he swam the free-style for North Carolina State University. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, Jones was the first African 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 out-right exclusion of African Americans and other people of color from beaches and swimming pools.

Jones 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 CDC, African American males over the age of five are 1.3 times more likely to drown than are 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 five 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 bath tub, 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 these schools or recreational facilities, maintenance is abysmal with nasty, funky locker rooms; 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. YM and YWCAs fill the gap to some extent, but membership can be impossible for many family budgets.

Let’s hope that Cullen Jones’ win makes more of a splash, both for his spectacular accomplishment, for being a first, and for the attention it might bring to 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.

This article was updated Aug. 7, 2014, to reflect the correct order of the U.S. relay team: Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak.To watch this record-breaking swim click here. A second correction was added April 18, 2016. U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Anthony Ervin, who won his medal during the 2000 Sydney Games, is considered to be the first U.S. gold medalist of African American descent. On the swim blog, SwimSwam, Cullen Jones’ bio reads:“At the Games in Beijing, Jones made history again; by winning a gold medal as part of the 400 free relay team he became only the second  swimmer of African-American descent to do so (the first was Anthony Ervin).” Ervin, whose mother is Jewish American of European descent and father is African and Native American, was asked by a reporter after the race what it felt like to be the first swimmer of African American descent to win gold. Referring to this moment in a 2012 interview, Ervin stated, “I didn’t know a thing about what it was like to be part of the black experience. But now I do. It’s like winning gold and having a bunch of old white people ask you what it’s like to be black. That is my black experience.”  —  Teresa Albano




Diane Mohney
Diane Mohney

Diane Mohney is a former School Nurse at the School District of Philadelphia.