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Olympian encourages children to learn to swim

Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones nearly drowned when he was 5. Now he's touring the nation, encouraging children to learn how to swim. He visited Oklahoma City on Aug. 11.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: August 12, 2011

Le-Asia Johnson shot a terrified look at her mother as she was picked up and carried into the swimming pool water. The 3-year-old listened as her swimming instructor — Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones — told her to spread out like a starfish and float in the water.

“Big breath,” he encouraged her. “Big breath. No laughing.”

Of course, that made Le-Asia laugh. He propped up her shoulders, backed off a bit and let her drift. Her mother clapped from the sidelines. Jones carried her back to the edge and sat her down. Le-Asia flashed the thumbs-up.

Le-Asia and eight other children had the chance to learn how to swim from Jones — one of the fastest swimmers in the world.

Jones gave a lesson Tuesday at Oklahoma City Community College as part of a nationwide tour to encourage children to learn to swim and community leaders to give children the chance.

He's working on behalf of Make a Splash, an anti-drowning initiative created by the USA Swimming Foundation and sponsored by ConocoPhillips.

When Jones sees scared little faces at the water's edge, he sees himself.

“It's rewarding and it's very humbling,” said Jones, a world record holder in the 4x100 freestyle relay. “I remember I was that kid that was afraid. ... I see myself in all these kids.”

Trauma to triumph

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Swimming safety

• Teach children to swim.

• Make kids swim with a buddy.

• Teach caution. All bodies of water can be dangerous for children. Also make sure children obey pool rules and never throw others into the water.

• Fence off water features. The pool should be completely fenced off from the home and play area to keep unsupervised children away from danger.

• Require life jackets. Children should wear life jackets in and around natural bodies of water even if they know how to swim.

• Learn CPR. Get recertified every two years. CPR can help a child stay alive with little or no brain damage.

• Always provide supervision. Young children should always be supervised around bathtubs, swimming pools and natural bodies of water. Avoid distractions like reading or talking on the phone.

SOURCES: USA Swimming Foundation,

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Drowning dangers

• 3,400: Number of people who drown in the United States each year.

• 60-70: Percent of black and Hispanic children who don't know how to swim.

• 3: Times more likely a black child is to drown than a white child.

• 13: Percent of children from non-swimming households who will learn how to swim.

SOURCES: USA Swimming Foundation,

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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