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Filled to capacity, the restaurant buzzed with commotion while camera flashes exploded in the dimly lit dining area of Buca di Beppo in Anaheim. Among the prestigious CEOs, directors, USA Swimming presidents, lifeguards, Olympic hopefuls and Olympic medalists sat a 6-year-old Santa Clarita swimmer who traveled more than 120 miles to have lunch with Olympic swimming icon Cullen Jones.

Jones is one of the fastest freestyle sprinters in the world today and holds the current American record in the 50m freestyle. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, he was a member of the electrifying 400m freestyle relay team that broke the world record and won Olympic gold in one of the most memorable races in history.

With the victory, Cullen became the second African American to win an Olympic swimming gold medal. In 2012, Cullen competed in the London Olympic Games, where he secured a silver medal in the 400m freestyle relay and garnered his first individual Olympic medal in the 50m freestyle.

Philly, a first-grader at Rio Vista Elementary and a beginning swimmer at Academy Swim Club of Valencia, joined swim club owner Nikki Miller during the USA Swimming Foundation’s annual luncheon, hosted by Olympic gold medalists Rowdy Gaines and Jones.

“Drowning is an epidemic in our nation,” said Gaines, a three-time Olympic medalist and USA Swimming Foundation ambassador. “Since 2006 the USA Swimming Foundation, through its Make a Splash initiative, has taught more than 2.5 million children to learn to swim, and to be safer around the water.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 people drown each day in the United States.

Additionally, a national research study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation and conducted by the University of Memphis found:

* 70 percent of African American children have low or no swimming ability;

* 60 percent of Latino children have low or no swimming ability;

* 40 percent of Caucasian children have low or no swimming ability;

* Ten people drown each day in the United States.

Ironically, Jones ad nearly drowned at age 5 while visiting a water park with his family.

“My dad wanted to get on the biggest ride at the amusement park. I came down the ride after my dad and hit the bottom where I was supposed to gently coast to the other side. I was so small, I flipped upside down. My mom hears my screams and then silence. She gains ‘superhuman strength’ and comes down the ride after me. She could not swim. So here we are. I’m drowning on the left. My mom is drowning on the right. After we were pulled from the water, I needed full resuscitation,” Jones said.

Jones, now 29, holds two Olympic gold medals and two silver medals.

The sport of swimming has been a part of the Olympic Games since inception in 1896 and is only one of five sports to compete in each Olympics. The United States has been the No. 1 swimming nation in the world more than 50 years.

“I want a gold medal. How can I be like you?” Philly asked as he searched Cullen for an Olympic-sized answer.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Cullen said. “You’ve got to train a lot and listen to your coach.”

Gaines also acknowledged the accolades of luncheon guest Debbie Meyer – the first swimmer in history to win three gold medals in three individual events: the 200m, 400m and 800m free during the 1968 Olympic Games when she was 16. She held 25 world records during her career.

Meyer is also familiar with a near-drowning experience.

“My 18-month-old daughter was sitting on the side of the spa,” she said. “I had my back to the spa and some little kid in the spa knocked her in. I did not know it. All of a sudden I hear her scream, and she is trying to hold on to somebody to come up. It is the scariest, scariest feeling.”

Miller, a former SCV diving coach, was compelled to open Academy Swim Club and establish the Aquatic Safety Awareness Program after a near double-drowning.

“My husband and I had gone out to lunch. After the babysitter left, I looked outside and there is a pile of wet clothes by the spa and vomit all over the deck of the spa. I asked my oldest son (age 3) what happened. He said the babysitter was on the phone when my 14-month-old toddler fell in. He said, ‘God just told me to go get him.’ So my 3-year-old went in to get him.”

As a USA Swimming Foundation Make a Splash Local Partner, Academy Swim Club has facilitated water safety events and provided year-round water safety training for infants, children and adults in Santa Clarita. Philly and his siblings began taking formal swim lessons at the Academy after Philly saw his 3-year-old brother jump into a crowded community pool unassisted, escaping the notice of the adults around the pool. After one swimming lesson at the Academy, Philly announced that he wanted to work there.

“I was 17 years old when I started swimming,” said Gaines. “It’s never too late to achieve your dream. If a child takes a swim lesson, that child’s chance of drowning is reduced by 88 percent.”

Jones agreed. “My mom was terrified of the water, but she went against the grain and got me swim lessons. You don’t see that in every family and that is what we want to change.”

“Kids have to know how to swim,” he said, “because they are going to get near water at some point. And as long as I have air in my lungs, I’m going to continue to spread this word because there is a cure to the drowning epidemic. Drowning is preventable.”

Beaming, Philly left the restaurant to return to Santa Clarita. “Cullen is the best,” he grinned, holding onto the indelible gold-medal memory of his lunch with Cullen Jones.

You can view the video segment, plus other stories, at http://scvtv.com/?p=7314.

Gloria Locke is a Santa Clarita resident and producer of “SCV-Arts & Entertainment,” which airs Fridays and Sundays on SCVTV.  Article originally published at SCV News.  You can view it at http://scvnews.com/2013/10/06/scv-swimmer-6-lunches-with-olympian-commentary-by-gloria-locke/