The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Olympic Hero

It’s funny, what memories come back to you, just from reading a news story. I finally read, this morning about Cullen Jones and his Olympic win.

Bronx-born swimmer Cullen Jones didn’t just help power the U.S. relay swim team to Olympic gold – he just may have shattered the stereotype that blacks can’t swim.

Although Jones isn’t the first African-American swimmer to make the Olympic squad (he’s the third), or the first to win a gold medal (he’s the second), he figured in one of the most exciting races in sports history.

And that thriller will be replayed on Olympic highlight reels for generations to come. “I hope this exposure from the race today, a kid can see this and say, ‘Wow, a black swimmer – and he’s got a gold medal,’ ” Jones, 24, said. “The stigma that black people don’t swim ended today.”

…Jones was 5 years old and living in Irvington, N.J., when his parents took him to a Pennsylvania water park to cool off. His mother, Debra, didn’t want him to go down a slide in an inner tube because he couldn’t swim.

Jones should have listened to his mother. When the inner tube flipped over, he panicked instead of letting go and then passed out.

It took CPR to bring him back to life. The next week, his mother sent him for swimming lessons at a YMCA in nearby Newark and then the John F. Kennedy Aquatic Center, which is also in Newark. Jones took to the water immediately, but wasn’t a standout at first, his coaches said. “At first he was an average swimmer and he progressed,” said Elliott Bradley. “The more he progressed, the better he got at it. I never thought he would go this far. I’m very proud of him.”

My first thought was to make sure Parker sees this. I want to make sure he hears what Cullen’s mother said.

Because of what she said, my second thought was of my father.

I remember my dad once took me and my sister to see a friend of the family’s daughter graduate from medical school. It required driving more than four hours, round trip, and I wondered why it was such a big deal to him. I didn’t know until after the graduation ceremony. We were leaving the auditorium, walking the steps when my dad stopped us, turned us around and said “I wanted you to come see this, because I wanted you to see what you can do.” He pointed back to the auditorium, “You can do that, or anything else you want to, if you work hard at it and want it bad enough.

It matters.

It’s something I’ve been doing with Parker for a while now, and it looks like we have another history-maker to put in our photo album.

But tonight, when I get home, I’ll take down from the shelf a project Parker and I have been working on for a while now. It started around the time that my son finally started to notice race, and perhaps he even perceived more about the differences made between people based on race than he had words to express. Wanting to pass on to him an idea of his heritage, and what people who look like him have and can accomplish, I decided we would start a photo album.

First, we put in family pictures, and I explained to him who each person in each picture was. Then we moved on to African Americans who are famous for their accomplishments. I tried to pick people whose accomplishments matched his interests — a black race car driver, because at the time Parker was into race cars; a black astronaut, because for a minute he wanted to be an astronaut; a black composer whose songs are among those I sing to him at night, when it’s my turn to put him to bed. We paste the pictures into the book, and then a short paragraph about that person, which I would read to him.

It’s our little history book, I guess. And tonight we’ll put Barak Obama’s picture in that book. For both of us, it will be an example of what he can accomplish. I will look my son in the eye and say to him what my parents said to me: “You can do anything, and be anything you want if you work hard at it. You could even be the president.” The difference is that when my parents said it to me, it was a dream — perhaps a belief in what the future and their country could be.

I didn’t go to medical school, and my son may or may not ever win an Olympic medal. But that day, my dad gave me something better than a medal: he basically told me he believed in me, and that if I believed in myself and that I could achieve any number of things, if I wanted it enough and worked hard enough. That’s something that’s stuck with me.

And though I’ve learned since then that sometimes you can work hard and want it bad enough and still not “win the gold,” sometimes the real prize is what you learn about yourself and what you can do.

Every Saturday we take Parker and Dylan to swimming lessons at the Y. I am going to sit Parker down in front of the television to make sure he saw someone who looks like him swimming in the Olympics and snatching a medal. I will browse over to him on my lap and told him that it took hard work, dedication, and practice for him to get there, and that he can do the same thing — be the best at something, win a prize or a medal, etc. — if he wants to, works hard, and practices.

My usual role, when we go to swimming lessons is to sit and watch Parker during his class, and offer encouragement, while the hubby is in the pool with Dylan, in the other class. We have a running joke in my family. Daddy is “dry-clean only” because Daddy doesn’t swim. Not very well, anyway.

And, yes, I never learned to swim.

In fact, I can’t even tread water. I stay out of water that’s over my head. The “deep end,” or anywhere else where I can’t touch the bottom and have my head above the surface, is off limits.

It’s not that I didn’t take lessons. I did. I wasn’t given much choice. (I think my folks never learned to swim, and wanted to me sure we did.) I had to go to summer camp and I took lessons there. I took lessons at the YMCA at least two summers in a row. I’m not sure, but I think that since I was made to take lessons, I rebelled on some psychological level by not learning how to swim. I can manage a few yards swimming backwards, using a weird stroke I made up myself at some point.

Not long ago, Parker turned to me and said “Daddy, you need to take swimming lessons too, so you can be in the water with me.” I blushed a bit, smiled, and realized he was right.

So, now I’m looking at the fall schedule at the Y, to find an adult swimming class I can take one evening per week. I almost certainly won’t be a forty-something olympian like Dana Torres. But I can do something for myself and for my sons. (And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them, if it helps them.)

It’s one thing for me to tell them they can accomplish something difficult — even if it’s just something that’s difficult for them — if they work hard at it, etc. It’s another for them to see me doing it myself. Maybe if they see me taking on something that’s a challenge for me, they’ll be a little more likely to believe they can to. Maybe they need to see Daddy jump into the deep end of the pool.

It matters.

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