(L-R) Elizabeth Beisel, Grant Williams of the Boston Celtics and Cullen Jones, pose for a photo after a swim lesson at Charlestown Boys & Girls Club on Jan. 19, 2020 in Charlestown, Mass.
CHARLESTOWN, Mass. — Long before he was an Olympic gold medalist in the pool, Cullen Jones was almost a statistic. At age 5, he was playing at a water park when he nearly drowned.
That experience led his mom to enroll him in swim classes, which in turn led to him making the U.S. Olympic Team in 2008 and 2012, all of which in turn led to him being at the Boys & Girls Club in Charlestown, Massachusetts, this past Sunday teaching swimming lessons.
While teaching the sport is hardly new for Jones, however, this event had a twist.
In addition to working with 12 local kids from the Boys & Girls Club, Jones and fellow teacher and three-time Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel also worked with Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams as part of a partnership between USA Swimming, U.S. Masters Swimming and the NBA team in which Williams and four other players will learn how to swim and become safer around water.
So while the Olympic swimmers helped the kids with breathing techniques and eventually worked their way up to doing full laps, Williams, a 6-foot-6, 236-pound professional athlete, was right with them.
“We (basketball players) are athletic off of the court on land, but when you throw us in water, we are the most unathletic people in the world,” Williams laughed. “It’s kind of surprising, but it’s something that a lot of guys really take advantage of because giving back and letting youth know it’s cool to learn and know how to swim is important — you shouldn’t be afraid of something, you should attack it head on.”
As Jones can attest to, it’s a battle worth fighting.
The statistics tell a stark story: Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children under 5 years old and the second-leading cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 14, according to USA Swimming and USMS. Approximately 10 people in the U.S. drown each day. The statistics are especially grim for people of color.
That’s a big reason why Jones, who is black, continues to dedicate his time to events like this one.
“I believe in irony,” Jones said with a rueful grin. “The most important part of my story is that I was fully supervised (by my parents and other adults), and many times when you see drownings in the U.S., it’s because of horseplay or some other reason typically not involving proper supervision.
“Then 18 years later, I became an Olympian for the first time, and that’s because of my mom telling me you’re not going to not swim. We see a lot of parents shoo their children away when they have these type of incidents.”
The convivial yet productive atmosphere evoked during Sunday’s class was reflective of the leaders — Williams, Jones and Beisel — three pro athletes whose positive attitudes, humility and unparalleled determination are infectious. The children looked up to their literal always-smiling faces with admiration and enthusiasm.
The same respect floated around among the athletes as well. Beisel, a Rhode Island native and Boston sports fan, reveled in the opportunity to work with the likes of Williams for a day and compare athletic routines, nutrition and game/race-day superstitions.
“We got to stop by the Celtics practice earlier to see what the players’ lives are like outside the pool,” said Beisel, who won Olympic silver and bronze medals in 2012. “It was nice to see how down-to-earth they are because they’re all celebrities in our eyes on TV while watching games. We showed them our Olympic medals, and it was just a (deep) level of appreciation on both ends because they’re the best in their sport and we’re the best in ours.
Beisel added, “Together we’re delivering the message for not just kids to learn how to swim, but also adults — including NBA players — because swimming really is the only life-saving sport that we have. For 88 percent of us, if we don’t have swim lessons from our parents then we’re not going to learn how to swim, so we’re trying to reiterate the importance of both children and adults knowing how to swim and the fact that it’s something that’s passed down to new generations.”
The passing of the torch, so-to-speak, has already begun in the Jones household when last month the Olympian was able to get his 6-month-old son in the water for the first time.
“Obviously age does not matter — just get in the water and learn how to swim,” said Jones, who has won two gold medals and two silver medals in his career. “It’s funny because at first he didn’t smile a lot, but then we got to take him a second time and he just loved the water — it was hard to get him out. He was actually crying when we pulled him out, and yes, I also shed some tears seeing him for the first time ... probably because I came full circle having almost drowned close to his age, so for him to have the proper introduction to water meant more than I can explain.”