Olympic Swimmer Cullen Jones: I Nearly Drowned at Age 5

Cullen Jones poses on the podium after he won the silver medal in the men's 50-meter freestyle final during the swimming event at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GettyImages

Talk about turning things around! At the age of 5, Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones nearly drowned at Dorney Park amusement park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. More than 25 years later, he’s working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen to any other kids.

“I went down this water ride and ended up flipping upside down,” the 32-year-old tells Us Weekly. “I was tall for my age, but pretty light, so I flipped upside down and they had to pull me out and give me full resuscitation. The next thing that came out of my mouth was ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on?’ — that was the first thing I said because I was 5,” he explains. “I had no idea that my life would be going full circle, to me now, as an adult, teaching lessons and trying to fight what happened to me.”

Shortly after the incident, his parents, Ronald and Debra — who were not entirely comfortable in the water themselves — enrolled Jones in swim lessons. Three teachers and three years later, he joined the swim team. Today, he’s a two-time gold medalist and the first African American world recordholder in long-course swimming.

Jones, who is currently training for his third Olympics in Charlotte, North Carolina, alongside Ryan Lochte, has made it his mission over the past six years to make other kids comfortable and safe in the water. Working with the Make a Splash initiative, he travels the country promoting the message of water safety and jumping in the water to teach impromptu swim lessons.

“Every time that I’m able to give a lesson, I really want to leave each child with a great experience,” he tells Us, adding that he’ll often share his own humble beginnings with children — as well as let them try on his gold medal — to encourage them to feel comfortable in the water.

While Jones has taught many kids how to swim (the initiative has reached nearly 4 million children), there is one encounter that has stuck with him the most.

“In Shreveport, Louisiana, there were six children that drowned trying to save the one before,” he recalls. "I was getting ready for the 50 freestyle at nationals and I got that message [that] morning. So my mind was just completely scattered, and my heart was hurting. I knew how important this was to me to get this message out about water safety and swim lessons,” Jones explains.

“That year, we went to Shreveport, and I was able to give a lesson to a lot of the families and friends of the families affected by this terrible tragedy in their community. I changed their perception of water — so many of them were terrified of being in the water. I had six kids, and at the end of the lesson they were all jumping to me in the water. It was one of those amazing experiences that made it real.”

While not every child will get a lesson from an Olympic swimmer, anyone can find an affordable way to learn to swim.

“If you go onto USASwimmingfoundation.org, we have local partners everywhere, and you can sign up your child or another child for low-cost or no-cost lessons,” says Jones, noting that children can start as young as 6 months old. “We’re really trying to get as much awareness as possible, and getting these kids acclimated to the water is the most important thing. It’s a life skill — it’s a great sport, it’s a lot of fun, we all love to do it when it starts to get hot, but it’s also a life skill.”

To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. The Olympics begin on August 5 and will be streamed live on NBCOlympics.com and NBC Sports Live Extra.

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