Cullen Jones was about to race in his biggest meet of the year when he heard that six teenagers had drowned in Shreveport, La.
Just over three months later, the Olympic gold medalist went to the city last week to give swim lessons.
"It was so big for me being in Shreveport after something like that had happened," Jones said Thursday.
This is why he spends months traveling the country even as he trains to get back on that podium at the 2012 Olympics. Jones has visited 12 cities in two years as part of USA Swimming's "Make a Splash" program to prevent drowning by minority children.
When Jones speaks to a group of kids, he first asks how many like being in the water. Almost all raise their hands. Then he asks how many know how to swim. Only a few hands go down.
Finally he asks how many have taken swim lessons.
"Then literally 80 percent of the hands drop," Jones said. "That's the real number of kids who really know how to swim. ...
"That's the most staggering thing that I've really noticed is that from city to city it's the same thing: There's just so many kids that think they know how to swim but really don't."
Shaken by learning about the high drowning rates among black children, Jones joined up with "Make a Splash" after winning gold on the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team at the 2008 Olympics. Only after nearly drowning as a 5-year-old did Jones learn to swim. He kept swimming all the way to becoming the first African-American to break a world record in an Olympic-contested event.
When he isn't training for a major meet, Jones is on the road — making appearances, doing clinics.
"This is what came with the gold medal," he said. "I love it. The events are my life right now."
Maybe he'd have even more opportunities if you could see him in the images of his teammates celebrating Jason Lezak's stunning comeback in the anchor leg to beat France. Jones swam third, so he had just climbed out of the side of the pool when Lezak touched the wall first.
"Worst marketing move ever," Jones joked. "I missed the pictures, everything. If I could change one thing ... "
He truly wouldn't change anything. Not even the fact that it's challenging to train at an elite level while crisscrossing the country.
USA Swimming puts Jones in touch with a local club while he's on the road so he can complete the workouts his coach sends him. So some days a youth swimmer attending her regular practice looks over to see an Olympic champion swimming alone in the next lane.
"I do my workout, hop out, maybe sign autographs for the kids, and then I'm off on the plane home," Jones said.
He'll return to training full-time early next month to prepare for next year's world championships. First he has a "Make a Splash" event in New York on Friday.
The tragedy in Shreveport was a reminder of all the lessons Jones wants to pass on. A group of teenagers who didn't know how to swim were splashing around waist-high in a river on a steamy August day when one slipped off a ledge into deep water. Six others tried to save him and drowned.
Not only does Jones want to teach swimming skills but basic water safety and emergency preparedness.
Once his swimming career is over, Jones hopes to go into fashion and design his own jeans line. For now, his goals are all in the pool.
"I think I can definitely see myself on the awards podium singing our national anthem again," Jones said. "This time I might be by myself, though."
Source: The Associated Press.