London: Cullen Jones was five when he almost drowned but rather than live in fear of water the American jumped back in with both feet, overcoming his fears to become an Olympic swimming gold medallist and drive a campaign to slash the drowning rate in the United States.   

The 28-year-old, who won relay gold in Beijing and hopes to earn an individual berth at the London Games, was put straight into swimming lessons by his mother after the water park accident.   

Jones now juggles his training with a campaign to lower the disproportionately high drowning rate among African-Americans and stressed the importance of teaching children how to swim.   

"In 2008 the drowning rate for African-Americans in the United States was three times more likely than any other rate," Jones told Reuters via telephone after one of his training sessions at the gym.   

A national research study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis showed 70 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Hispanic/Latino children could not swim.   

Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also showed more than one in five fatal drowning victims are children younger than 14.   

"Swimming is a life skill," added Jones.   

"The biggest problem in the United States is people see it only as an activity, as something fun you do on vacation. But kids are going into the water and drowning. There's a simple way to stop this."   

Jones said he owed a great deal to his parents for forcing him to confront his fears at an early age.   

"My dad and I talked my mum into letting me on this ride and I ended up being flipped upside down, almost drowning and needing full resuscitation. My mum got me into swimming lessons within a week," he recalled.   

"I see tragedy bringing on triumph every day working with Make a Splash. But so many of their parents don't do what my parents did.   

"So many tell their kids to stay away from the water."   

Jones said his work at the Make a Splash programme since 2008 had made him a better swimmer.   

"I'm able to swim at speeds I wasn't four years ago. I'm in better shape now and I've learned a lot. I knew I wanted to help get kids water-safe, but I didn't know how much of an impact that would have on me," he added.    

"Seeing their faces light up, those are the faces I see when I'm tired or can't get through the wall."   

Individual Focus   

Another factor driving Jones forward to the London Games is the hurt of missing out on individual competition in Beijing after he delivered a performance that was far from his best in the 50-metres freestyle at the 2008 Olympic trials.   

"That's been the one thing burning in the back of my head for the last four years. I messed up at the trials and didn't swim my own race. That hurt," said Jones.   

"I love swimming relays but I want to swim an individual. That's my focal point."   

Jones will have the chance to claim an individual berth at the June 25-July 2 national trials, which he hopes will be the first of two major peaks in his 2012 form.   

"Last year I went to the worlds, then I came back and went to the nationals, which was to replicate what it would feel like to go from one meet at my peak straight to another.   

"In 2008 I was able to hit a double peak. I think I'm still going to be able to do that, we've been training to do that. My yardage this year has been more than the past three years.   

"Hopefully the Olympics will be the stronger peak."   

Jones credits 14-times gold medallist Michael Phelps and best friend Ryan Lochte for providing support as well as a rivalry that keeps them constantly striving to beat each other and set new boundaries.   

"Ryan and I have been room mates since 2006 when I first made the international team, we've been friends ever since.   

"Last year I had to race one of my team mates to make the worlds team and he was definitely in my corner, along with Michael of course. The three of us are pretty tight."   

The laughter will be pushed aside when the country's best swimmers convene for the fiercely competitive national trials.   

"Because we're only together for that month, being known as Team USA and walking around like that you just get fired up," he said. "Knowing that for that month you're training with the best in your country, you can't not catch that Olympic feeling."

(Agencies)

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