By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Memphis, 2008. It was the first “official” day of summer – the day when pools open. It was hot, easily 90-degrees. People eagerly filtered into area pools. Pools were crowded. Despite the crowds, kids swam. People laughed. Splashed. Cooled off in the heat. It was a typical summer’s day that mimicked similar scenes across the country: Opening day on a hot summer afternoon.
By that night, two local teenagers had drowned.
13-year-old Cameron Hogg and 15-year-old Demavius Bailey tragically lost their lives that day in 2008. And they didn’t drown in pools where no one saw them go underwater. They weren’t swimming in the dark, and they weren’t swimming at night. The pools Hogg and Bailey drowned in were crowded and populated pools. They swam in broad daylight. There were, reportedly, 5 lifeguards on deck. Reportedly hundreds of people witnessed the tragedy. Yet, these two drownings still occurred. It is a similar story around the nation: Nearly ten people drown every day in the United States, according to the CDC. Drowning is an epidemic.
Since then, over 30 Memphis organizations formulated a plan: They would not let this tragedy happen again. They would not allow another youth to drown in Memphis pools, in broad daylight, among other pool patrons. Together, they formulated an organization called “Splash Mid-South.” The organization helps give swim lessons to area kids, either free or low-cost. It encourages minority participation in swimming. It supports research. And it helps trains lifeguards and adult CPR training.
Today, Splash Mid-South and the City of Memphis’ efforts are rewarded with a visit from Cullen Jones, as part of the “Make a Splash” tour. Memphis won this year’s “Make a Splash” video contest. The contest requested cities to tell their story how they’ve made their communities water-safe. People responded so much to Memphis’ story that they won the most votes. You can watch the great video here.
Since that Memphis tragedy in 2008, according to the video, Splash Mid-South has taught 3,000 kids how to swim.
This afternoon, Cullen Jones visits a community once ravaged by tragedy – a community where nearly two-thirds of African American kids can’t swim. A community that has pulled together 30 organizations, like the Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Safe Kids Mid-South, the YMCA, City of Memphis, and University of Memphis, among many others, to teach kids how to swim. To teach adults how to perform CPR. To support swimming research. And to make their community more water-safe.
It’s a beautiful story of a city learning in the wake of tragedy, identifying a problem, and working together to help solve it. Their resolve is shown in the video contest, as “hundreds of thousands” of voters flocked to USA Swimming’s website to vote. “Splash Mid-South” will receive a $5,000 grant to support their efforts in addition to Cullen’s visit. Over a hundred kids will receive a free swimming lesson. And Cullen will share his message to the community about how he once almost drowned, and since, has made two Olympic teams…
Imagine how many more kids will learn to swim with that grant money. Imagine how many more kids will have a shot to overcome fears, to become water-safe, to enjoy a sport many of us do on a daily basis after listening to Cullen’s message. Cullen Jones can’t visit every community in the country, but his visit to Memphis will be one of the most appreciated.
Throughout covering competitive swimming, I’ve seen quite a few cities turn tragedy into inspiration. Lia Neal’s story comes to mind. A Brooklyn native, Neal earned a scholarship that was started in the wake of 9/11. This summer, she represented an entire country in the London Olympics, becoming the second woman of African American descent to make the U.S. Olympic swim team.
It makes me wonder, in eight, or twelve, or sixteen years from now, if we’ll see a swimmer from Memphis in the Olympics. And maybe that swimmer will point to today, when Cullen Jones stopped by his or her city with a message. Or maybe that swimmer will point to that tragedy in 2008, when those two teenagers drowned, and told themselves, “That will not happen to me.”
Today is a celebration of something good coming from something tragic. Congratulations, Memphis. You’ve earned today’s “Make A Splash” event. Let your story be an example to all other cities dealing with record-breaking drowning statistics this summer, so in the future, more cities follow your example, and try their best to get all children water-safe…
To learn more about Splash Mid-South, you can visit this website: http://splashmidsouth.org/. To learn about “Make a Splash” you can go here.