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A swimming lesson with Cullen Jones

Jemele Hill and Justin Tinsley join the 2-time gold medalist for a morning dip

It’s a muggy August morning in Washington, D.C.

Ominous clouds move in over Washington, D.C.’s Olympic-size East Potomac Pool, creating an apprehensive scene that mimics how Justin Tinsley, culture and sports writer for The Undefeated, feels on the inside.

After nearly three decades years of avoiding the water, Tinsley was going to learn how to swim. Not only would he learn how to swim, he would be taught by two-time Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones and accompanied by ESPN His & Hers co-host Jemele Hill.

“What we want people to understand is that there’s this stereotype, there’s a myth that black people don’t swim,” Hill said. “We’re out here swimmin’, so, yes we can.”

The best part? This was all going to happen in just 60 minutes.

A group of swimmers catches Tinsley’s eye.

“Just look at them looking like water gazelles,” he said. “So graceful, so peaceful.” Gliding gently through the waters over and over, the young swimmers practice breaststroke, backstroke, freestyle.

“I’ve got the arms down, I’ve got the legs down,” Tinsley said. “The only part I don’t have down is the breathing, which, honestly, is the most important part of being in the water. Breathing is the most important part of living and if I can’t breathe while I’m in the pool, I’m just pretty much setting myself up for failure. By failure, I mean certain death.”

Ignoring the fact that the starting point he’s hovering over is only 4 1/2 feet deep, Tinsley continues to ramble his futile “last” confession. Although half-joking in his uncertainty, he shares the real hesitance the majority of African-Americans feel when it comes to swimming. According to research conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation, nearly 70 percent of African-American children have little to no knowledge of how to swim, which increases the risk of drowning.

Of the 339,903 registered USA Swimming members, only 1 percent is African-American. Jones understands the importance of swimming not only as a professional, but also from personal experience. After Jones nearly drowned when he was 5 years old, his mother immediately signed him up for swimming lessons.

“She went against the grain,” Jones said. “She didn’t know how to swim. My dad somewhat knew how to swim. They said, ‘Hey, you’re going to get swim lessons. We don’t know how, but you’re going to learn.’ What they produced was an Olympic gold medalist.”

As the first athlete ambassador of USA Swimming’s Make a Splash initiative — a national water safety program developed to help children learn to swim — Jones and the program’s partners give children an opportunity to learn by providing access to pools and lessons across the country. With over 400 local partners, Jones believes not having proper access to pools can hinder a child’s experience, but the larger part of the narrative is the stigma of being afraid of water that plagues the African-American family.

“Access isn’t necessarily the issue, it’s changing the mindset that ‘black people don’t swim,’ ” said Jones. “That’s the thing that we need to fight against and we need to change. I go from city to city, and the first thing I always ask is, ‘How many of you guys like to be in the water?’ There’s not one hand that doesn’t shoot up in the air. All kids like to be in the water. The problem is we’re not giving our black children the tools to be successful.”

At the pool, Jones and Tinsley walk over a few inches where it deepens to 5 feet. Tinsley gives Jones an uncertain look. After briefly negotiating, the two backtrack to the 4 1/2 marker. Tinsley looks relieved.

Much better. Jones leaps from the side and into the pool, followed by Hill. Tinsley toes the water before immersing himself.

The lesson begins with the most important part: breathing. “A lot of people think we’re holding our breaths the whole time we’re swimming, but we’re breathing normally because we turn our heads at a rate where we’re constantly breathing in and out,” Jones told the two. “One of the biggest things I try to tell people when they’re learning to start swimming is when you’re breathing out, you breathe out in the water. If air is coming out of your nose, water can’t get in.”

Jones demonstrates as Hill and Tinsley follow his lead. Once they get the hang of breathing, the next step is learning to control the body while in water. The three practice floating, treading water, and leg and arm motions. With each technique down, Tinsley’s confidence rises. “I’m feeling a lot better about this,” he said.

The next step is putting it all together. Remembering everything he was taught within the first 40 minutes and encouraging words from Hill and Jones, Tinsley is given a boost. With controlled breathing, arms in motion and legs kicking, he coasts into deeper territory, his strokes landing him in 7 feet of water — the deepest area of the pool he’s been in today.

Jones, Hill and bystanders cheer Tinsley on. Aside from accomplishing such a difficult feat in only an hour, he also gained the basic tools to help him hone a necessary life skill.

“I think they did awesome,” Jones said. “[Tinsley] calls himself a novice, but for him to be out there and put himself out there in front of everyone to learn and really be open to learning — I think if he practices, he might actually start being a swimmer.

“Jemele is a swimmer, she knows what she’s doing, but it was fun to watch her excel at some things. Sometimes you just need a refresher course, but the best thing about swimming is it’s like riding a bike. Once you know it, you got it for life.”

Tinsley exits the pool, head held high. The ominous skies began to clear a bit. He lives to see another day.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.