CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Taking part in relays, recounting stories from his past, posing for pictures and making up cheers with the children, U.S. Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones looked to be having just as good a time as the members of Amphibious Achievement at MIT’s Zesiger Center Pool on Saturday. As the winner of the USA Swimming Foundation’s “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” photography contest, Amphibious Achievement received a visit from the two-time Olympic Gold medalist, who held a two hour workshop with the high school students before challenging them to a relay race in the pool. This contest was part of the Foundation’s Make a Splash Tour, which aims to provide swim lessons for every child in America.
Sitting down with Jones after the pool had emptied out, he said that he had decided to become a part of the USA Swimming Foundation after learning about one of the most worrying, yet least talked about, epidemics in the country: drowning. “The second leading cause of accidental death under the age of 14 is drowning,” he said. “But people don’t know that because it’s not in everyone’s faces every day. After winning my first Gold medal, a friend of mine showed me drowning statistics and I knew that this was something I wanted to be a part of. I knew right then that I could give back to a sport that had given me so much.”
Before getting in the water with the Achievers, Jones met with the students to talk about his journey and how he got to where he is today. “A lot of it was my own story,” he said. “The goods and the bads, everything. The pitfalls are the things that people need to understand. It’s not all about the gold medals. There have been moments I have struggled. I grew up in the inner-city and never believed I would become an Olympian. Any dream is possible and, if you have a dream, stick with it.”
Amphibious Achievement, a dual athletic and academic mentorship program for inner-city students in the Greater Boston area, was launched in 2011 by MIT student-athletes Noam Angrist ’13 and Ron Rosenberg ’13. The program, which focuses on promoting “success in and out of the water,” has tripled in size since it began just two years ago. With its 40 MIT mentors and 55 Achievers, the group meets every Sunday to work on swimming and rowing techniques, while also spending time learning math fundamentals and critical reading. For those students in their junior and senior years, the mentors provide help with college applications and essays. As one of the five programs that was chosen as a finalist in the contest, the public voted Amphibious Achievement as the unanimous winner, giving the program the opportunity to meet Jones, who has partnered with the Make a Splash campaign since 2008.
Alice Huang ‘15, co-president of Amphibious Achievement, said that Jones discussed the importance of having dreams and goals with the Achievers before they got in the pool, using two simple terms to help the students understand. “A glass goal is one that is possible and plausible to achieve,” she said, “while a cement goal is one that you wish you could someday reach and one that you work towards every day.” Jones used the example of wanting to beat his own American record as his glass goal and gunning to break the world record as his cement goal.
When talking about his swimming career, Jones spoke with passion for the sport. “Swimming has taught me about goal-setting. It has taught me that nothing comes easy. Every day that I go to practice, I know that I am training to take seconds off my time. I train for hours, weeks, months, just to drop a tenth of a second. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, I love it. I love racing. It’s something I enjoy and I’m good at.”
In 2007 the USA Swimming Foundation launched the Make a Splash campaign, a water safety initiative which aims to raise enough funds to provide the opportunity for every child in America to learn how to swim. The Foundation also partners with different groups to educate the public on the statistics and factors involved in drowning and why it is so important to be aware of such information.
Since becoming the face of the Make a Splash initiative, Jones has traveled all over the country to meet with groups similar to Amphibious Achievement and discuss the importance of learning how to swim. “Traveling to meet new kids is an amazing, amazing privilege. Just to see so many different children from all different walks of life, some good, some absolutely awful, is what makes it worth it. Some kids don’t have suits and goggles and the scariest thing isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that they don’t even know they need them. It’s cool to be able to shine a light on such a problem and expose these children to something they never even thought possible.”