It’s nearly Memorial Day, which means it’s nearly the unofficial start of summer, which means, among other things, hordes of families descending on water parks in search of fun in the hot sun. But water parks can also present dangers, especially for children, and no one knows that better than Cullen Jones, who came close to dying at one when he was 5.
That would be the same Cullen Jones who is now training for his third Olympic Games as a member of the U.S. swimming team, and although he hopes to bring back more medals from Rio de Janeiro this August (he already has two golds and two silvers), the 32-year-old is also continuing to bring this message to people young and old: Learn how to swim.
Water-park operators are in complete agreement with this message — it is the top safety tip for those planning a trip to an aquatic facility. I asked Jones to recount his experience all those years ago. Rather than recoil at the prospect of dredging up a painful memory, he was happy to do it. After all, the incident not only sparked a stellar athletic career, but it also gave him an even greater purpose than representing his country.
“My mom knew I loved being in the water and [she] wanted to let me go on water rides,” Jones recalled in a phone conversation from North Carolina. “We started off really easy, going to some of the smaller, kiddie rides, I guess you would call them. But my dad, who was 6-[foot]-4, wanted to get on the largest ride there.”
“There” was Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania, not far from where Jones grew up, in northern New Jersey. The ride involved taking an inner tube down a slide and into a pool, and Jones was “really excited” about it.
His father went first, then Jones, then his mother. But when the youngster hit the pool, his tube flipped over, and Jones was trapped underneath it, without the strength to pull himself up and out of the water. Meanwhile, his father had taken his eye off the boy for just a moment, because it was a popular ride and participants had been encouraged to hand their tubes to the next people in line as soon as they finished.
Jones’ father soon realized there was a problem, but he also needed to attend to his wife, who couldn’t swim either, while a lifeguard pulled his son out of the water. Jones, who estimated that he was submerged for about 30 seconds, had lost consciousness. Park staff members resuscitated him.
The episode prompted Jones’ parents to sign him up for swimming lessons, and although that process took some time — “I went through about three different teachers before I started feeling comfortable around the water again,’’ Jones said — the rest is sports history. He became the first African American swimmer to break a long-course world record and the first to win gold at the World University Games, as well as the second to win gold at the Olympics.
He said his near-death experience led him to become a primary spokesman for USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative, which aims to provide kids across the country with lessons, because fighting drowning “isn’t about shaking a finger, it’s really about teaching children how to swim.” He added, “If I’d had formal lessons or had learned how to be safer around the water, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”
Aleatha Ezra, an official at the World Waterpark Association, couldn’t agree more. “The need for people of all ages to learn to swim, I think everyone in the industry would agree, is the most important thing that people can do,” she said during a phone interview.
“It just plays such a fundamental role in keeping safe in and around the water, and, in fact, research has shown that participating in swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children aged 1 to 4,” Ezra continued. “So we think it’s a powerful tool.”
But learning to swim is not the only precaution families can take before going to water parks. For one thing, those who can’t swim or aren’t confident in the water should wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket, which some facilities provide for free.
“There’s certainly no stigma involved,” Ezra said. “It’s great to put on a life jacket, and it’s the safest thing to do if you don’t feel strong as a swimmer, or if you haven’t taken swim lessons.”
She cautioned that air-filled swimming aids commonly known as water wings are not the same thing, warning that they “can create a false sense of water safety.” Some parks, in fact, ban water wings altogether.
Another major point of emphasis is parental supervision. “Your child should be within arm’s reach at all times when enjoying water recreation activities,” Ezra said. “It’s just really important that the parent play an active role and be very close to their children when they’re enjoying these types of activities.”
Ezra pointed out that lifeguards and other staffers “are there to be the last line of defense. They are there to be vigilant and scanning and watching everyone, but there should be multiple layers in play. ... The first line of defense is a parent, and anyone going into the water with the skills and knowledge to swim safely.”
But even with a variety of safeguards in place, unexpected events can occur at water parks, such as what happened to Jones. “I was fully supervised,” he noted. “You know, the lifeguard was there, my parents were there, and it wasn’t as if I was fooling around or doing something I shouldn’t have been doing.”
That’s why Jones is such an advocate for swimming lessons, especially in a nation where overall drowning rates are, as he put it, “unbelievably high” (about 3,500 people a year, 25 percent of whom are under the age of 14) and where so many people, particularly African Americans (almost 70 percent, according to a 2010 study), don’t know how to swim.
Safety tips at water parks
▪ Never swim alone or in unsupervised places. (Children should always have a buddy.)
▪ Keep toddlers in shallow play areas.
▪ Warn kids to avoid swallowing park water.
▪ Note water depth when going from one attraction to another.
▪ Make sure kids understand the importance of reading all posted signs.
▪ Don’t drink alcohol.
Source: World Waterpark Association