Cullen Jones (right) and student in swimming pool
Cullen Jones (right) and student at a recent ‘Make a Splash’ swimming lesson in Houston, TX. Credit: Mike Lewis/USA Swimming

With summer nearly upon us, pool season will soon kick off. Unfortunately, especially for Black and Latinx youth, that means increased danger due to stats that show them far more likely to drown than white children.

Check out these disturbing statistics:

  • Drowning claims the lives of approximately 3,500 people per year, with nearly 25 percent being children under the age of 14. The problem is particularly prevalent in ethnically diverse communities, where the drowning rate is almost three times the national average (CDC).
  • Approximately 10 people drown every day in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Black children drown at a rate nearly 5.5 times higher than their Caucasian peers, as reported by the CDC.
  • Drowning is a silent killer—most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time, according to the Present P. Child Drowning Study.
  • If a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 19% chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.
  • 79% of children in families with household income less than $50,000 have no or low swimming ability.

To help prevent such tragedies, the USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 have been sponsoring an annual “Make a Splash Tour,” where former Olympic swimmers visit cities across the country providing swimming lessons for youth, especially Black and Latinx children.

Recently, Olympians Cullen Jones (2008 and 2012 Olympic Games) and Nathan Adrian (2008, 2012 and 2016) were in Houston sharing this life-saving skill with H-Town children. The Defender spoke with the two about this initiative.

DISTURBING STAT: In 2020, 1.26 per 100,000 persons aged ≤29 years died from unintentional drowning, a 16.79% increase from 2019. Drowning death rates decreased 1.81% per year on average (95% CI: −3.02%, −0.59%) from 2010 to 2019. [CDC]

Olympians Nathan Adrian (far left) and Cullen Jones (far right) stand with two people against a multi-color backgorund with the words Northside High School on it
Olympians Nathan Adrian (far left) and Cullen Jones (far right) during a recent ‘Make a Splash’ session in Houston. Credit: Mike Lewis/USA Swimming

DEFENDER: So, what brings two Olympians to Houston?

CULLEN JONES: We’re here for the “Make a Splash Tour.” After 2008, USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 started a water education program that really focused on trying to get more kids to learn to swim. It was very focused on trying to break generational barriers, especially in Black Americans, Latino Americans, and honestly, the numbers for Caucasian Americans aren’t great either. So, at the time it was 70% of Blacks, 60% of Latinos and 40% of Caucasians (who didn’t know how to swim). It was a US problem. So, we’ve been doing it for 15 years. And the best part about this is we started in Houston and 15 years later, we’re back in Houston, just trying to push the importance of learning to swim. (May) is International Water Safety Month, and the pools are opening. Kids are trying to get near the water. We wanna make sure they’re safer around the water.

DISTURBING STAT: The largest increases in unintentional drowning deaths from 2019 to 2020 occurred among young adults aged 20 to 24 years (44.12%), Black or African American persons (23.73%), and males (19.55%). The location with the largest increase in drowning was natural water (26.44%). [CDC]

DEFENDER: Why is water safety something that all parents and really all people should have way higher on our radar?

NATHAN ADRIAN: It’s the only sport that is a lifesaving skill. And as Cullen mentioned, the statistics are just kind of eye-opening when you see them. (Today), 60% of African-American children don’t know how to swim, 45% of Hispanic/Latino children don’t know how to swim and 40% of Caucasian children don’t know how to swim. And the coolest part is that lessons have been shown to be 88% effective in preventing drowning; formalized swim lessons. That’s it. And in terms of public health initiatives, that’s one of the most successful ones. And the other thing that we really try to emphasize is that if a parent or guardian doesn’t know how to swim, they’re only 19% likely to put their own children into swim lessons. So, once we break that cycle… and let me give Cullen a lot of props, because he is actually the one who was doing it for so long. He was at the first stop in Houston [15 years ago], and it inspired me as a young athlete, that, hey, he’s doing something great with his career, and I would love to be able to do the same thing, when the time came for me. Just in 2022, USA Swimming Foundation gave just under $1 million to help provide grants for swim opportunities for those who can’t afford it.

CULLEN JONES: And if you listen to the numbers that Nathan said, they were lower than mine because 10 years ago, the 70% was where it is (for Black youth). Now we’re seeing that the work is actually (paying off). Not only people are paying attention to swimming, but they’re understanding the message we are sending is so vital and important.

Cullen Jones (left) and student at a recent ‘Make a Splash’ swimming lesson
Cullen Jones (left) and student at a recent ‘Make a Splash’ swimming lesson in Houston, Texas. Credit: Mike Lewis/USA Swimming

DISTURBING STAT: One in five American’s who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. []

DEFENDER: With those crazy and scary numbers of the percentage of children that don’t know how to swim, what was the process for you two becoming comfortable with the water and learning how to swim?

NATHAN ADRIAN: My town’s claim to fame is it has the most coastline in any county in Washington state. So, my parents saw that a lot of the parks and things might have had docks, they were near the water. They felt really strongly that I needed to be in swim lessons as early as I could be. So, my time was spent doing swim lessons over and over and over.

CULLEN JONES: I had humble beginnings of being just like Nathan, a water baby, loving the water, wanting to be near the water. So, my parents took me to an amusement park, but I had not had swim lessons. I think what’s important about my story was that there were lifeguards there. My parents were there. Normally, you hear the story and it’s like someone was doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. And, I was still able to go underwater; had to be resuscitated. And then, my parents were like, “Never again. We’re getting you into swim lessons.” And then, 20 years later, swimming’s still a primary piece of my life and becoming an Olympian; but humble beginnings of almost drowning. I was almost the statistics that we are trying to fight.

DISTURBING STAT: Black children 5 – 19 drown at rates 5.5 times higher than white children in pools.

DEFENDER: So, growing up in the Black community and being a swimmer, what was that like?

CULLEN JONES: Everyone’s playing basketball, football, and, “Oh, you’re doing that swimming thing?” And then, we win gold medals and then the conversation changes. “Oh, how’s swimming going?” It changes then. But, growing up, it was a little different, wearing Speedos for a living. But it was my life. I enjoyed it. My best friends were swimmers. So, it was a great upbringing. But I did notice that I was alone many of the times when it came to looking left and right and seeing if there were gonna be other Black swimmers. There just wasn’t. But now as, as we’ve talked about what “Make a Splash” stands for, and as swimming becomes more and more popular, we are seeing more people of color… in water right now. So, we’re moving in the right direction.

DISTURBING STATS: Black children 11-12 drown in pools at rates 10 times those of whites.

Nathan Adrian looks up from the swimming pool
Nathan Adrian Credit: Mike Lewis
black and white image of Cullen Jones
Cullen Jones Credit: Mike Lewis

DEFENDER: Final question, what are the 1-3 biggest tips you can give to parents and to children about to get in the water?

CULLEN JONES: Water watchers. Never, ever swim alone. The second one that I can think of right now is “Reach; Don’t Go.” When someone is in danger, they will pull their closest loved one underwater just to get (above water). It’s a fight-or-flight situation at that point. So, one of the things that lifeguards always talk about is do not try to put your hand out to pull someone back. Find something to help them, to bring them to safety.

NATHAN ADRIAN: The last one could be swim lessons. It is that important.

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Aswad WalkerAssociate Editor

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...