"I was almost a statistic," two-time Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones tells PEOPLE

By Tiare Dunlap
June 01, 2016 02:10 PM
AP Photo/Julio Cortez

When Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones was 5 years old, he almost drowned during a trip to a Pennsylvania water park with his family.

“My inner tube hit the pool at the bottom of the biggest slide in the park and flipped over,” Jones, 32, tells PEOPLE. “I had never had swim lessons, I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself out of the water.”

Jones held on to the inner tube trapped under the water until he lost consciousness. He says he was out for 30 seconds before a lifeguard pulled him out and resuscitated him. “I was almost a statistic,” says Jones, who began taking swimming lessons shortly after the accident.

It took working with three different instructors to bring Jones to a place where he felt comfortable in the water. Although he soon displayed a talent for swimming, he wasn’t sold on making the sport his life until he attended a friend’s swim meet. “I told my mom I wanted to compete and she said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you need to see it all the way through,’ ” Jones recalls.

Jones took his mother’s words to heart. Twenty years later, he went on to become the first African-American to set a world record in swimming and won four medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Amid of all these accomplishments, Jones has dedicated his life outside of his training to ensuring other children won’t have to go through what he did (or worse) by teaching free swimming lessons and promoting water safety through USA Swimming Foundation’s Make A Splash initiative.

“There’s no reason why every child shouldn’t learn how to swim,” Jones says. “Kids love to be near water and just like you wouldn t allow your kids to ride in a car without a seatbelt or play football without pads you can’t so your children to go to the pool without proper lessons.”

Beijing Olympics 2008 U.S. relay team: Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Jones was asked to become a spokesperson for the initiative after he won a gold medal and set a world record in the 4 100-meter freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. When the USA Swimming Foundation approached Jones with statistics on drowning, his mind immediately went to his friends and family.

“When I think about my mom and my family and many of the people around me, they’re at risk when it comes to water,” he says. “Teaching family and friends to swim has always been a big thing for me so I signed on immediately.”

While he’s currently training 30 hours per week for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, Jones says he’s made it a personal goal to keep spreading awareness about the importance of water safety. Jones says it’s a job he’ll stick with until it’s done – with around 10 people dying from drowning in the U.S. each day (according to the CDC) he knows his work is far from finished.

Cullen Jones leads a swimming lesson in Shreveport, Louisiana.
AP

He recalls a particularly devastating episode in 2010, when 6 teens in Shreveport, Louisiana, drowned trying to save one another in a river. “When I heard that news my heart was heavy,” he recalls.

That year, Jones took the Make a Splash initiative to Shreveport, where he gave a free lesson to children from the community who were still in the grips of the tragedy.

“As soon as the lesson began all of the children were terrified of the water and didn t want to get in,” Jones says. “By the end of the lesson they were all jumping in the water and blowing bubbles.”

“To be able to go to a community that had something so terrible happen and give them something positive like that meant a lot,” he says. “That was the moment I felt like this is the thing I will stand behind my entire life.”

To learn more about the Make a Splash initiative, visit Usaswimmingfoundation.org.

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