Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones helps D.C. kids overcome fear of swimming

By Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Shomari Stevens, a budding swimmer in the District's Aqua Day Camp, remembers losing his breath and sinking to the bottom of a pool and almost drowning.

What the 9-year-old couldn't remember Tuesday at the Turkey Thicket Pool -- where a 6-year-old girl drowned June 23 -- is when it happened.

"And besides, I don't want to," he said during USA Swimming's Make a Splash event, after a group lesson from Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones.

The Make a Splash water safety program is an attempt by USA Swimming, the sport's governing body, to increase minority participation in the sport. The organization found that almost 70 percent of African American children and almost 60 percent of Hispanic children were at risk of drowning, compared with 40 percent of white children.

"It surprises me that it's that high," Jones said. "It doesn't surprise me that a lot of African Americans can't swim, because we as a people make fun of it."

Researchers have found that groups who poke fun at the sport might be using humor to deal with something they're deeply afraid of.

In May, USA Swimming released results of a study conducted with the University of Memphis that found that the fear of drowning -- not financial or geographic limitations -- is what keeps most inner-city children from taking swimming lessons, and out of pools altogether.

"We knew that the fear of water and the fear of drowning and injury were high in marginalized populations, but we didn't completely understand how deep and embedded it was until we talked to the focus groups," said Carol Irwin, an assistant professor in sport sciences at the University of Memphis who helped conduct the study.

Minority parents from 12 focus groups in six cities across the country who did not know how to swim were less likely to allow their children to take lessons. It's a trend that has become a cycle in urban communities, Irwin said.

"They don't want their child to go into the water because they can't control what might happen," Irwin said.

"We don't want to project our failings and our fears onto our kids," Jones said. "That's what we're trying to change."

The lack of early childhood exposure to water and children learning incorrect techniques raise the risk of drowning for many minority children. More than one in five accidental drownings are of children younger than 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Parents transferring their fear of water to their children or telling them to stay away from swimming altogether can gradually lead to the children developing a phobic response to water activities, Irwin said.

"No one ever drowned at a swim lesson," said Katrina Florence, a spokeswoman for the Make a Splash program. "They're safest when they're learning."

At Tuesday's event, Jones asked the group of mostly African American children to raise their hands if they knew how to swim. Almost instantly, most of their hands and wiggling fingers shot into the air. Fingers froze and hands gradually slid back down, however, when Jones asked how many of them could get from one side of a pool to another without touching the bottom.

"It hurts my heart to see that this is happening to African American and Hispanic kids," he told them shortly before the wave of children, wearing matching blue T-shirts, rushed him for autographs.

Jones said the greatest barrier in teaching young children to swim is gaining their trust in the water.

During the event, he carried 9-year-old Mekayla Mackey -- shouting in protest and hanging onto his neck -- into the five-foot-deep section of the pool. Minutes later, he was holding her arms as she kicked her way through the five- and four-foot-deep sections of the pool.

More than 370,000 children have participated in Make a Splash, which is in its fourth year, through one of 225 partner programs in 42 states. Thirteen of those programs are in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

By the end of the day at Turkey Thicket, Shomari had made it to the seven-foot-deep area.

"It felt like an achievement," he said, smiling at the side of the pool after it emptied.

The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation is hosting its first Water Safety Day Celebration from 1 to 4 p.m. July 24 at the Deanwood Community Center.

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