High drowning rates for black children can be prevented with swim lessons, says Cullen Jones, who won gold at the Beijing Games

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When 11-year-old David Morgan learned that an Olympic gold medalist had said Morgan had a freestyle stroke that “looks like my stroke,” he could barely contain himself.

A big smile swept across his face as he ran off to tell friends about Cullen Jones, a U.S. men’s 400-meter relay member at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“He’s cool,” Morgan said of Jones. “Really disciplined, though.”

Jones, the first black man to hold a world record in swimming, gave Morgan and four other children free swim lessons at the Garfield Community Center with Make A Splash, a six-city event series aimed at reducing drownings. Jones’ relay set a world record at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships.

“Next to swimming, this is the closest thing to my heart right now,” said Jones, who is taking a break from training in his offseason.

Drowning is the second-most common cause of accidental death for kids, behind car accidents, according to USA Swimming Foundation.

Black children drown at a rate almost three times higher than white children in similar age groups, according to a University of Memphis study. Six of 10 black children can’t swim.

“There is a cure for this, and it’s swim lessons,” Jones said. “Parents don’t know how to swim, and they don’t teach their kids. We’re trying to break the cycle.”

Jones’ mother made him take swimming lessons at age 5 after they both nearly drowned at an amusement park water slide.

“She got me into lessons as fast as possible,” said Jones, whose mother still doesn’t know how to swim.

At 15, Jones joined a competitive team as the only black swimmer.

When he first joined, Jones says friends and family poked fun at him — especially at his skimpy swimsuits. But he broke the American record in the 50 free at the 2008 Olympic trials, and “they don’t make fun of me anymore,” he said.

And who knows, maybe one of these kids is a future Olympian, says Jones, pointing toward Morgan.

“If he wanted to be a swimmer, he could be,” he said.