Olympians Nathan Adrian (far left) and Cullen Jones (far right) pose at Houston’s Northside High School
Credit: Mike Lewis/USA Swimming

Recently, Olympians Cullen Jones (2008 and 2012 Olympic Games) and Nathan Adrian (2008, 2012 and 2016) were in Houston sharing swimming lessons, a life-saving skill, with Houston youth as part of the “Make a Splash Tour,” a 15-year-old effect sponsored by the USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 to increase the number of Black and Brown youth swimmers and thereby reduce the number of drownings in communities of color.

Jones and Adrian shared with the Defender their reactions to the harrowing statistics regarding drownings and Black and Latinx youth.

DEFENDER: I’m just gonna read some of these harrowing statistics, and I would like to get your gut reactions. Drowning claims the lives of approximately 3,500 people per year with nearly 25% of them being children under the age of 14.

CULLEN JONES: You can turn on the news and see quite a bit of other things. But unfortunately, the drowning rates are not (shown). The CDC has claimed (drownings) to be at an epidemic level; the second leading cause of death at under the age of 14, next to car crashes. But you don’t see it. That’s one of the reasons why this is so important that we try to put this in front of people. Both of us being parents, we know because there’s an 88% chance that because we know how to swim, we will get our children to swim. Nathan said a little earlier, six weeks, I was about six months with my little guy (starting swim lessons). But still, our kids are big into wanting to get near the water and be around water. And we want them to be safer around water. So that’s the most important thing.

DEFENDER: Another stat: approximately 10 people drown every day in the United States. Mr. Adrian, you coming from the most “coastlined” county in Washington state. How crazy does that sound to you?

NATHAN ADRIAN: You know, it is absolutely crazy. We’ve been doing this long enough that I think we’ve internalized it, unfortunately. But many times when we go into work, the unfortunate truth and the reality is that during that course of swim lessons, the statistics say one person is probably going to drown; which is really just kind of heart-wrenching. It helps give you the motivation to really do a great job and do your best to get these kids ready. And we call it water competent, not water safe, just because, listen, Cullen and I are really good swimmers, but you get us out in a nasty rip current, we’re still gonna have issues. So, we do preach just overall water safety everywhere, whether it be in the pool, whether it be in the ocean, and really knowing your surroundings.

DEFENDER: Next stat: Black children drowned at a rate nearly 5.5 times higher than their Caucasian peers. How does that hit you Mr. Jones?

CULLEN JONES: When I start hearing that stat, USA Swimming has worked with UNLV and University of Memphis to do a study. That’s how we figured out all of these stats and that you’re reading off. There were three major reasons why the Black community, especially, doesn’t teach their kids to learn. Where are the barriers — that was really what the focus was (of the study). Number one was fear, number two was parental backing and number three was physical appearance. So, fear, as we can all imagine, when you think about learning to swim, you go back into the 1950s and 60s, segregation. Pools were not open for most Blacks to be near. You’ve got, uh, baseball announcers saying that Black people can’t swim because they’re not buoyant. Like four medals, my man. Four medals, and I still can’t float? Muscle doesn’t float. That has nothing to do with learning to swim. So, we need to start changing the narrative that we’re, we’re speaking. Of course, when it says to parental backing, as we both said, when you have a parent that is afraid of the water, they tend to treat water like fire, hot, stay away. So, what they do is they try to shield their kids away from it. Every time we go to an event, we say, “How many of you guys like to be near the water?” And there’s not one hand that doesn’t shoot up when it’s hot, especially here in Houston. And then of course, the third one, which I dealt with quite a bit, especially for the guys, wearing small suits, and Black ladies with their hair. I’ve got a strong Black mom. When it comes to her hair, that money’s gone as soon as she touches (the water). So, I get it. My conversation with ladies, is swimming is like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget. So, take a summer, learn to swim, get comfortable around the water, because it’s going to save your life. Guys, you’ve got a number of different suits that you can wear to get comfortable. That should not be a barrier. Go out there, learn to swim, because again, once you learn, you never forget.

DEFENDER: Two stats: Most children who’ve drowned were last seen at home outta sight for less than five minutes. And then the other, if a parent doesn’t know how to swim, there’s only a 19% chance that a child’s gonna learn how to swim. How do those hit you?

NATHAN ADRIAN: They absolutely hit hard, because it is exactly that tragic, where it’s one moment, you’re having a conversation, the next moment you’re saying where is so-and-so. And to that, you have to have so many layers of protection, and formalized swim lessons are one of the strongest layers of protection. But the others might be having a water watcher; always having a water watcher. And they are not allowed to do anything else. Their phone should not even be near them. Or if it is, it should be upside down and silent. If they have to go to the bathroom, they designate someone else and they look’em in the eye, and say, “Hey, you are the water watcher while I’m in the bathroom.” It has to be really that serious. The others include having some sort of a barrier [to the pool} and then always making sure that the doors to the outside are closed. So, it’s the barrier, meaning fence, and then the other one being the door to the outside. Again, it’s so tragic, it happens that quickly. It’s not like the movies where we’re splashing and we’re yelling “Help!” Unfortunately, once they go under, they’re really not able to catch their breath and scream for help. So, you gotta have all those layers and treat it that seriously. But also understand that swimming is a beautiful thing. We’re not just trying to scare people. Having a healthy relationship with the water through these formalized swim lessons is really the most effective intervention.

CULLEN JONES: Just to add, that was my circumstance. Nathan hit it right on the head. We see it in theaters, (people drowning are like), “Help, help!” Most of the time, that does not happen. When I came down the ride with my parents, I went straight under, did not come back up and then had to be resuscitated, thank God because someone saw me and my parents knew that I was underwater. But that doesn’t happen for everyone. So, like Nathan said, those swim lessons, that is the most important way to try to change these numbers. And that’s really why we’re here. We’re trying to drop these drowning rates.

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...