Accidental drowning is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14, while black children are three times more likely to die from accidental drowning than white children in similar age groups.

Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones was nearly one of those statistics.

Jones nearly drowned at 5 years old while
vacationing with his parents at a Pennsylvania
water park. It took four resuscitations from a lifeguard to revive him.

Now, Jones is on a mission to raise awareness about the importance of learning to swim properly. He has joined forces with USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash program to reduce drowning among minority youths. According to a recent study, 70 percent of black children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have little to no swimming ability, putting them at risk for drowning.

Through the Make a Splash program, Jones, 26, wants to equip kids with basic swimming knowledge so they can be safe around pools. He visited Douglas Park in North Lawndale on Tuesday to give a swimming demonstration, as part of the program.

He noted that many people falsely believe they know how to swim because they can doggy paddle or float in the pool’s shallow end.

“That’s not swimming,” said Jones, who won gold in 4×100 relay with teammate Michael Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “If you haven’t had a swim lesson, you really don’t know how to swim. A swim lesson is getting accumulated to the pool and being comfortable around the water. If you can’t swim from one side to other, you really can’t swim.”

Six lucky kids got personal swimming lessons from Jones, the world record holder in the 50 meter freestyle. He provided tips on various swimming techniques. Jones’s Chicago visit was part of six-city tour for the Make a Splash program, underwritten by oil giant ConocoPhillips.

Cousins Jordan Fenderson, 7, and Ashley Willis, 8, were among the lucky kids to get personal swimming lessons. “He taught me how to do my freestyle right,” said Fenderson, who now aspires to be an Olympic swimmer like Jones-“I think I’m good,” she added.

Willis’ favorite part was doing “cannonball” dives to see who could splash the most water on Jones. Willis said she took up swimming because it was “great exercise.” Their aunt, Marie Johnson of Austin, said swimming is in their blood-their grandfather won several swimming trophies while in high school. Johnson also recalled how frequent trips to the family home on the shores of Ocala, Fla. made learning to swim easy for them.

“They love the water,” she said, having learned to swim herself at age 14. “I call them my little guppies.”

With high drowning rates among minorities, Jones-said the foundation’s chief development officer, Christopher A. LaBianco, Sr.-is the perfect person to get the word out, based on his background. The group commissioned the study on drowning rates among minorities.

“As a young man who almost drowned as a child, whose parents got him into lessons, ultimately you can see how far he’s gone,” LaBianco said. “It is a simple step of getting in the pool and learning how to swim.”

Jones’s message is also aimed at parents. He recalled that his life would be different if his mother had not put him in swimming class after his near drowning. Black parents, he contends, don’t teach their kids to swim because they don’t’ see it as a priority, or they are fearful themselves. They pass that fear onto their kids, Jones maintains, adding that parents “think of water just like they think of fire.”

“It is better to give your children the skills to succeed rather than hinder them by telling them to stay away from the water,” he said. “What we are trying to do is catch kids when they are fearless and they want to learn.”

Jones also warned that a lifeguard doesn’t prevent drowning, noting that children still drown even when they are supervised. As for increasing swimming opportunities for minorities, the USA Swimming Foundation has partnered with World Sport Chicago, on a solution. The Chicago-based nonprofit, which looks to increase the visibility of Olympic sports to youths, will fund lifeguards and swim instructors at 17 city parks during the summer.

Jones, a New York City native, is gearing up for 2012 Olympics, training in North Carolina. He hopes to compete in the relay meet again, as well as do some individuals races, including the 100-meter freestyle. Concerning his Olympic experience, Jones said it was the best and scariest of time.

“Being a swimmer on the U.S. team at that time was absolutely amazing,” he said.