The thing I remember most is the feeling of not being able to breathe. Sheer helplessness. I was hanging underwater from the overturned inner tube, looking up at the surface and holding on to the handles — just like my dad told me to — trying to pull myself up.
But I couldn’t.
I couldn’t swim.
I was five years old.
We were at a waterpark called Dorney Park in Pennsylvania, and my dad wanted to go down the biggest waterslide there. Me being a kid, I wanted to do whatever my dad did, so I followed suit. We had to talk my mom into letting me go, and we did, so all three of us walked up the stairs and got in line.
When our turn came up, my dad went down first. He made me promise three or four times that I would hold on to the handles on the inner tube and that I wouldn’t let go. I guess he knew it was going to be a little dangerous.
On this ride, you’d sit in the inner tube and spin around while you went down the slide. You’re supposed to hit the bottom and slide across the water — your speed is supposed to carry you across to the shallow end. Well, I was tall enough to ride, but I was too thin. So when I reached the bottom of the slide, instead of my body weight and momentum carrying me to shallow water, I hit the water and flipped upside down.
My mom heard me scream before I went under, so she shot down the waterslide after me. She couldn’t swim, either, and she also flipped upside down.
It can take as little as 20 seconds for a kid to drown.
I was under water for 30 seconds.
My dad jumped in and pulled my mom out of the water. The lifeguard jumped in and got me. I was unconscious. Non-responsive. He gave me CPR.
When I finally woke up — laying on the ground and looking up at the sky — the first thing I saw was that lifeguard. Then, I saw my dad, and the first thing out of my mouth was, “What’s the next ride we’re getting on?”
My mom’s first words were, “We’re gonna get you swim lessons.”
And with that, we left the water park.
I remember the whole thing pretty vividly, but the one thing that stays with me is that feeling of not being able to breathe. That helplessness. That feeling in my chest of my lungs straining and my heart starting to race.
Now, I push that limit pretty much every day at work. I do it for a living. I have to hold my breath for a 50-meter free, and I have practices where I push that limit far enough to where I can feel that same feeling in my lungs and in my chest that I felt that day at the waterpark. I know that I’m in the pool, where I belong, and that everything is under control, but I still flash back sometimes and feel like I’m back underneath that inner tube, and I remember that helpless feeling.
My mom followed through on her promise after that day at the waterpark and immediately got me into swimming lessons. I started competitive swimming when I was eight, after I saw my first swim meet. I thought it was so cool. I started loving the sport of swimming, but I wasn’t very good. Everyone else was just so much faster thanI was. But I was competitive, so I just kept working, and I started getting better and better.
I didn’t get to the national level until college, which is much later than usual. Most swimmers at the level I’m at now started going to nationals at 15 years old. When I went to my first national meet overseas, I was 22. That was when someone first told me they thought I could make it to the Olympics.
“You’ve got something, kid,” a coach told me. “Keep going.”
And I did. Two years later, I was in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
I swam the third leg of the 4×100 freestyle relay in Beijing, and with the help of Michael Phelps leading it off, Garrett Weber-Gale second and Jason Lezak swimming the fastest split in Olympic history in the final turn, we set a new world record with a time of 3:08:24, almost four seconds faster than the previous world record, which we set the day before.
It was an incredible moment for a lot of reasons. It was my first Olympics. I won a gold medal. We set a world record. A world record!
But the thing that I remember most is a phone call I got afterwards. It was from a friend back in the U.S.
“Do you know what you just did?” He said.
“Uh … we set a record?”
“No,” he said. “Tiger. Venus and Serena. That’s what you just did.”
His reference wads was that no African-American had ever held a world record in swimming, a sport that’s been in the Olympics basically since the Games began. African-Americans had won gold medals in swimming, but none had ever held a world record.
Naturally, I was excited about having won gold and having set the record. But being the first African-American ever to hold a world record in the sport of swimming? That didn’t really hit me until later, and when it did, it hit kind of heavy.
After the Olympics, I got another phone call. This one from the USA Swimming Foundation. They had heard my story — all the way from Dorney Park and that waterslide up to Beijing and the world record — and they had some stats they wanted to share with me.
— Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death in America.
— Seventy percent of African-American children can’t swim.
— African-American children are three times more likely to drown than children of other races.
I thought about those statistics. About that day at Dorney Park. About the swim lessons I took afterwards. About how I was almost one of those statistics. Then I thought, There’s gotta be something we can do about this …
That’s why they called.
Another stat they shared is that participation in swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children ages 1-4. They had a program called Make a Splash, designed to educate parents, children and communities about the importance of learning to swim and being safe around the water.
They asked me if I wanted to work with them. I said yes, on the spot.
Since then, we’ve established Make a Splash local providers in all 50 states and we’ve helped teach nearly 4 Million kids how to swim.
I think about what could have happened if I had never had that experience that day at the waterpark. If I hadn’t almost drowned, would I have taken swimming lessons? Would I have ever learned how to swim? Could I have found myself in the water at another time, without my parents and a lifeguard there to pull me out and save my life?
That could have absolutely happened. It happens to 10 people a day in the United States. But it doesn’t have to.
Because of my parents and that lifeguard, I’m alive today. I’m an Olympian. I’m a gold medalist. I’m a world record holder. You want Gold, you push the limits. I push the limits every time I get in the water. Let’s push the limits of how many children we can get in the pool and teach how to swim.
Let’s push the limits of how many lives we can save.
Cullen Jones is an Olympic gold medalist and an ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative. For more information on how to find, get or give a swim lesson, visit USASwimmingFoundation.org