At Age 5, He Almost Drowned—Now Olympian Cullen Jones Wants Our Kids To Have Swim Lessons

Updated: May 31, 2024

Four-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones brings attention to the data suggesting children who've taken swimming lessons are 88% less likely to drown than those who haven't.

As we inch near summer’s beach and pool days, you want to make sure you and your loved ones are trained in swimming and water safety. According to a May 2024 national report, drowning deaths have significantly increased post-pandemic, with the CDC reporting more than 4,000 drowning deaths occur in the U.S. each year—and a noteworthy 55% of Americans reporting that they’ve never taken a formal swimming lesson.

If you’ve never completed lessons or you feel uneasy around water, take it from four-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones: Arming yourself with the tools to stay safe is one of the first ways to get comfortable. Today, at 40, Jones is an Olympic swimmer who holds the world record in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. But at five years old, his near-death experience in the water is what first led his parents to enroll him in swimming lessons.

The Healthy by Reader’s Digest spoke with Cullen Jones, who partnered with Leslie’s Pool Supplies to offer generous advice for water safety and help protect others from the trauma that he ultimately transformed into his inspiration to become great.

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Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones teaches Grant Williams of the Boston Celtics durig a swim lesson at Charlestown Boys & Girls Club on January 19, 2020 in Charlestown, MassachusettsMaddie Meyer/getty images

The Healthy by Reader’s Digest: Cullen, thanks for working with us to bring awareness to this. Will you share the story of your childhood experience nearly drowning?

Cullen Jones: I was five years old and at a water park with my parents. There were lifeguards and my parents present, which is important to the story because it wasn’t a situation, which is quite common, of a child allured to water and alone.

I really looked up to my father, and I went on a slide ride directly after him. He made me promise that at the end of the ride, I would keep hold of the inner tube float. The innertube had a closed center and wasn’t the open donut-like style.  At the end of the slide ride, I flipped into the air and got caught underneath the water and the innertube with its close center. I didn’t know how to get out from under it and up to the air.  A lifeguard saved me.

They say that a child can suffer brain damage when without air for 30 seconds, and I was definitely under the water for longer than that and had to be resuscitated.

This scare spurred my parents into action and immediately put me into swimming lessons. Rather than keep me away from the water, they pushed me toward it and wanted me to have the skills to be safe in, on and around the water.

The Healthy: Did that play any role in your going on to become an Olympic swimmer?

Cullen Jones: Absolutely! I went through five instructors until I finally found the right one and then I thrived. I was really drawn to the sport because of its competitive nature, but more importantly, it’s an individualized sport. As an individual athlete, I became driven to beat my own personal times, other athletes I competed directly against and my own goals. That drive really took off in college and when I made Team USA.

The Healthy: What do you want parents, guardians and caretakers of children to know today?

Cullen Jones: I want to share so much. First, swimming lessons save lives! Children who have taken swimming lessons are 88% less likely to drown than those who have not.

Second, I believe that children are irresistibly drawn to water, whether it’s a backyard pool, hot tub, pond, or river. It’s better to teach them how to be safe in and around the water than to instruct them to avoid it and hope they listen.

Drowning is the #1 cause of death in children under four years old and the second-leading cause of [death among] kids 5 to 19 years old, just behind car crashes.

After several years of leveling off, drowning deaths are now on the rise. According to the CDC, since the pandemic, more than 4,500 people die annually from drowning. That’s up 500 drowning deaths per year—or 12.5%—from 2019.

Unlike any other sport, swimming is a sport and an important life skill.

The Healthy: What are your tips for anyone who cares for children?

Cullen Jones: Here are some tips:

  • Start early by getting infants into the water as early as six months old. This helps the child acclimate to the water and pool environment, easing things when it’s time for swimming lessons.
  • Children can start swimming lessons as early as six years old, and I recommend that parents enroll their kids in professional swim instruction programs. It’s important for people and kids to learn to swim from trained instructors rather than from a parent or family friend.
  • Keep trying until you find the right instructor fit. I went through five until I found a great match.
  • To maximize your child’s enjoyment and advancement in the sport, keep playtime separate from learning, designating times for swim lessons and practice apart from regular pool recreation.

For the third year in a row, I am partnering with Leslie’s, the leading pool and spa retailer in the U.S., to help educate pool owners and parents on safety, especially at this time of year—the kick-off to the pool season—and all season long.

This involves the three tenets of water safety for pool owners: Maintaining healthy and safe pool water, ensuring a secure pool area, and encouraging swimming lessons and water safety education.

While swimming lessons help individuals be safe in and around water, pool owners should take additional precautions to prevent drownings and maintain a safe environment.

Pool supply stores offer a range of products to secure the pool area and to stay safe, including pool security fencing, gates (and locks for them), safety covers and pool alarms, as well as learn-to-swim gear and U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation products.

Get your pool water tested weekly and more [often] if you encounter adverse weather or have a pool party with many people in the pool.

People should know that clear water is not clean water.

Clear-looking pool water is mistakenly assumed to be safe for swimming, according to a March 2024 Harris Poll survey. The poll found that 71% of Americans believe that clear water is clean and safe for swimming. However, it can contain contaminants that pose a danger to swimmers, and pool owners shouldn’t assume a pool is safe just because the water is clear.

So, test your water often by bringing it to a pool supply store and or try out Leslie’s AccuBlue Home.

When kids are in the pool, always supervise them! Provide dedicated, undistracted supervision. Stay alert and keep your eyes on the pool. Avoid cell phones and other distractions.

The Healthy: What are your suggestions for finding a quality swim instructor for children?

Cullen Jones: Many resources are available in local communities that offer swimming lessons, from local, dedicated swim schools to organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Look for certifications and experience, and ensure the instructor is certified by a reputable organization like the American Red Cross.

Leslie’s is raising funds now through Oct. 31 to support the American Red Cross and free learn-to-swim programs with Boys and Girls Clubs. You can find your local club here.  Join us in this cause online or at the more than 1,000 stores that are taking donations.

When assessing an instructor, look for a strong safety focus and a clear communication style. Most swim instructors are compassionate and patient people who love the water and want to teach people to be safe and enjoy it. It is important to find a good fit for each child. If the first instructor is not a good fit, keep trying.

The Healthy: What’s one self-care practice you refuse to skip?

Cullen Jones: I work out still to keep myself together. It is scientifically proven that working out is great for mood, mental clarity, and more. I am not perfect, but I try to monitor myself. If I am not feeling right, it is usually because I haven’t cleared my head with a workout and meditation.