For Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, his career as a swimmer began when he nearly drowned.
Cullen, then 5 years old, wanted to try a water slide; his father had cautioned him not to let go of the inner tube he would use on the ride. But at the bottom of the slide, Cullen's inner tube hit the water, flipped over and pinned him underneath, still holding on, for 30 seconds.
It takes only 20 seconds underwater for a child to drown, Mr. Jones told about two dozen members of the Pittsburgh Stingrays swim team inside the Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District on Friday evening.
The week after the incident, his mother signed him up for swim lessons at a YMCA, he told the audience, and swimming became a passion that ultimately yielded a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, two silver medals at the 2012 London Olympics and a world record in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. But while not all children can become competitive swimmers, they can and should all learn to swim, he said.
"It is hard to do organized swimming," said Mr. Jones, who said costs to compete and difficulty finding adequate pools are barriers to many urban swim teams. "But when it comes to drowning, there is an easy answer -- swim lessons."
Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children after car accidents; 70 percent of African-American children, 60 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children have low or no swimming ability, according to the USA Swimming Foundation, which is working with Mr. Jones to help children across the country get swimming lessons.
For much of the African-American community, swimming is seen as a fun way to cool off in the summer, not a competitive sport that can lead to scholarships and even careers, said Pittsburgh Stingrays coach Hosea Holder, 76.
"It's a hard sell when this city is overwhelmed with either basketball or football," said Mr. Holder, who has been coaching swim teams for 47 years. "The kids don't understand because it's a lifetime skill."
In his presentation as part of the team's celebration of Black History Month, however, Mr. Jones talked about how the self-discipline, sacrifice and work ethic demanded by competitive swimming created a path for him toward not only athletic but academic success.
To be his best at Saturday morning practices and meets, he told the small, bedazzled crowd of swimmers, parents and community members inside the Y's gymnasium, he went to bed early many Friday nights when his friends were going out. On all but his "cheat days," he chose vegetables and protein over the pizza and ice cream he loves. And when he was tired and down and wanted to quit, he didn't.
Instead of letting himself get overwhelmed, Mr. Jones said, he tried to focus just on beating the guy next to him. And he constantly set goals for himself, then set new ones as he achieved them. He went to practice consistently -- five hours a day split between morning and evening practices with a two-hour weight-lifting session in between.
And always, he kept trying to move forward, ultimately earning offers of full scholarships from more than 30 four-year colleges, said Mr. Jones, an English major who graduated from North Carolina State University.
"Everything is possible if you work hard and you sacrifice -- you can get one of these if you try," he said, smiling broadly and pulling out his gold medal to the delighted gasps of the swimmers.
Penn Hills resident Isaiah Gregory, 14, said he is already living out much of the advice he heard from Mr. Jones, in his own quest to become an Olympic swimmer. He works hard at practice and turns down offers to spend time with friends so that he's ready for morning practices. But hearing Mr. Jones' story, the details of his training and his experiences at the Olympics, was fun, he said.
"It gave me something to look forward to with my own swimming career," he said, before heading off to an evening swim practice in the Y's pool.
• Black History Month events listed for area, Page A-11
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719. First Published February 9, 2013 5:00 AM