Thursday, June 3, 2010

Olympic gold medalist makes a splash in Greenville

GREENVILLE — Nearly 4,000 people die each year from unintentional drownings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And African-Americans age 10-19 are three times more likely to die in the water.
As a youngster, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones almost became a statistic.
“I almost drowned when I was five years old. It happened at an amusement park,” said Jones, who was at the Bobby Henry Memorial Pool Wednesday morning giving hands-on instructions to youngsters.
“We get on the biggest (ride) there because my dad wanted to get on it, and slide down this ride and I end up flipping upside down. I didn’t know how to swim so I ended up drowning. The lifeguard and my dad had to come get me. They had to revive me.”
Now the 2008 gold medalist wants to ensure that incidents like his are a thing of the past. He travels to cities across the world as part of the Cullen Jones Diversity Tour to help put an end to water accidents.
Youngsters from the YMCA, the Delta State swim team and the Delta Acquatic Club were on hand to get a picture, an autograph and word of advice from the proclaimed “Tiger Woods of swimming.”
Jones said he has heard the comparisons and is proud to be associated with such an athlete.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” said the New York native. “I can’t believe that I’m associated with that name. I’d love to meet him. I’ve met Michael Jordan.
“I try not to let that pressure get to me. I kinda do what I can and practice what I preach by trying to get kids water safe.”
Ed Johnson, CEO of the Delta Economic Development Center, said Jones is one of two individuals he would like to see make a visit to the Delta.
“Dr. Ben Carson, who wrote the book Gifted Hands and is the top brain surgeon in the world, and Cullen Jones,” said Johnson.
“Swimming is a life skill and I realize that I see kids and adults drown here every summer.”
Johnson said he and news anchor Jenese Harris of WABG tracked down Jones’ agent to bring Jones to the Delta.
The Bobby Henry Memorial Pool, which is in its final stages of a major facelift, was the perfect spot for his visit, said Johnson.
“This is one of four Olympic-size pools in the state of Mississippi,” Johnson explained. “And it was in a bad condition two weeks ago. And I said we have to do something as a community piece for the city. So for me, it’s what we’re supposed to do.”
YMCA Director Phillip Doiron echoed Johnson’s statements.
“It’s amazing not to just have an Olympian here, but someone who just got a gold medal in 2008, and is going for another one in 2012,” said Doiron. “It’s real inspirational for these kids.”
At the end of Jones’ visit, he competed in a relay race against DSU swimmers and the Delta Acquatic Club. Teammed up with Mayor Heather Hudson, the Greenville All-Stars, as they were dubbed, didn’t win the match, but the trip to the Delta was like no other, said Jones.
“It’s definitely different from what I’m usually used to because I grew up in the city,” he said. “I definitely can respect and love the other side of the coin.
“While coming here, I was pressed against the glass, looking out the window, (saying) ‘this is so green, so beautiful.’
(Others in the car) were like ‘ this is everyday.’ “

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