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Before he got to the top, Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones started at the bottom.

When he was 5, Jones nearly drowned at a Pennsylvania water park. It was then that his mother signed him up for swimming lessons, changing the trajectory of her son's life. Today, Jones, 34, is a two-time gold medalist and the first African-American to hold a world record in swimming.

He's also one of several Olympians who travel the country spreading the word about how important swimming is. It's about so much more than cooling off on a hot day.

As Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, the philanthropic arm of USA Swimming that connects Olympic swimmers like Jones with communities and kids across the country through its Make A Splash initiative, puts it: "It's the only sport that can save your life."

That matters when you look at how bad swimming rates are among lower socio-economic households and in communities of color.

A 2017 study by the University of Memphis and University of Nevada-Las Vegas found that in households that make less than $50,000 a year, 79 percent of children have little or no ability to swim. 

Among African-American children, regardless of household income, 64 percent have little or no swimming skills, according to the 2017 study. The same goes for 45 percent of Hispanic children.

That doesn't mean these same children won't get in the water. The 2017 study found 87 percent of kids with little or no swimming skills still planned to swim during the summer, which makes drowning a real risk. Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in children between the ages of one and four.

So many factors play a role in why kids don't know how to swim, experts say: financial reasons, access to pools, fear, and in some cases, a generational divide.

"What we found through our statistics is if a parent doesn’t know how to swim there’s only a 30 percent their child will learn to swim," said Hesse.

That's why several groups are working to take the fear out of swimming and get more kids in the water.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit has a program called Detroit Swim. Started in 2010, the Y partners with more than a dozen local schools and actually buses kids to pools throughout Metro Detroit for free swim lessons. The 8-week water safety program teaches kids six benchmark skills, including floating on their back and rolling from front to back in the water.

"This is not teaching bilateral breathing or backstroke," said Julie Koroly, the Y's regional director of aquatics, who notes Detroit Swim has taught 7,000 kids since it started. "It's very basic stuff that we take for granted, like putting your face in the water. There are some people who are terrified of that."

The USA Swimming Foundation's Make A Swim initiative, meanwhile, connects with 850 learn to swim providers across the country to offer free or reduced swim lessons (go to www.usaswimmingfoundation.org and click on "Make A Splash" to find lessons near you). As part of that initiative and another partnership, Swim 1922 with historically black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho, they're offering a free swim clinic at the Wayne County Family Aquatic Center on Sunday with Olympian Maritza McClendon. McClendon is the first African-American to win an Olympic medal in swimming, which she did in 2004.

"What we're trying to do is really raise awareness," said Hesse. "It's just as important to put your kid in swimming lessons as it is to put them in a car seat."

Learning to swim doesn't have a zip code. It can save your life.

"It's a priceless skill everyone regardless of who they are or where they grew up should have," said Koroly of the Y.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan

 

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