Cullen JonesCullen Jones sternly barked orders to the nearly half a dozen children wading in the pool.

“Kick,” he said to a young girl in the flowered swimsuit. “Harder. Come on, you can do it.”

The group of elementary-age children got a treat Wednesday as the Olympic gold medalist gave them a swim lesson to launch a six-city event called ‘Make a Splash with Cullen Jones.’

The initiative, which is sponsored by the USA Swimming Foundation and ConocoPhillips, is aimed at reducing drownings among minority youth by promoting the availability of low or no-cost swimming lessons.

Jones is the perfect spokesman for the program after becoming the first African American to break a world record in swimming in an Olympic contested event in 2006. His success continued last summer in Beijing when he won a gold medal with the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team.

His involvement in the cause isn’t for publicity; he only learned to swim after almost drowning at age 5. The incident at a water park that left him unconscious and requiring CPR spurred his family to get him swim lessons which turned into a career in the sport.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children ages 14 and under in the United States. The problem is most serious among African-Americans ages 5-14 who are more than three times more likely to drown than white children of the same age range.

“Almost being part of the statistic, it hits kind of close to home,” Jones said. “I’ve just taken the torch and really tried to run with it to help diversity in swimming.”

On Wednesday, Jones spent more than half an hour teaching the 8-to-10-year-olds swimming basics including how to breathe underwater and the proper way to kick. There was splashing and laughing, but Jones made sure the four girls and one boy understood the importance of learning to swim and using care near the water.

“I have a lot of friends who don’t know how to swim,” said 8-year-old Citizen Broome. “Now I’ll tell them I learned about swimming from someone in the Olympics and they should learn so they can be safe.”

Members of the Houston Fire Department, who are often the first responders to drownings, attended the event to lend their support. Assistant fire chief Adrian Trevino said 32 children drowned in the Houston area last year. He’s encouraged by any program that teaches water safety, especially with summer right around the corner.

“This is phenomenal for the Houston community to have somebody of Cullen’s stature and everything that he has done for this sport to come over and promote water safety and swimming,” Trevino said. “It just brings out more awareness so we can teach more of our kids to swim.”

Studies have shown that six in 10 black children don’t know how to swim. Jones knows changing that means taking on years of stereotypes and educating parents on the importance of water safety so they’ll teach their children.

“It’s not going to be something that’s going to happen overnight because I’m working against generations of a stigma,” Jones said. “The parents might not necessarily see it as being a big life skill that the children need to learn.”

“The biggest thing that I can tell them is: ‘Your kids love the water, your kids love to be at the beach … your kids love to ride in the car, but you would never put them in the car without a safety belt. But you’re doing essentially the same thing by letting them go to the beach and play around the water, but not knowing how to swim.’ Anything can happen.”

Along with his community work, Jones continues to train and is preparing for this summer’s world championships in Rome. He joined Olympic teammate Michael Phelps at the Charlotte Ultraswim last weekend.

“I’m definitely shooting for the worlds,” Jones said. “I swam against Michael this past weekend and it went really well. I switched up my stroke a little bit to more of a straight arm stroke and I’m really excited for worlds.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.