It looked like a typical summer morning Thursday inside the cavernous pool complex at the University of New Orleans. A couple of dozen schoolchildren aged 6 to 12 were learning how to dog-paddle and float on their backs. 

But two of their instructors were not so typical, and their mission was a lot more serious than giving kids on summer break something to occupy their time. 

Rowdy Gaines won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. Cullen Jones won gold in 2008 and 2012. He competed in what many consider to be the greatest Olympic swimming relay ever held. 

The pair were in town as part of a public awareness campaign put on by the USA Swimming Foundation called the "Make a Splash Tour," which also scheduled stops this year in Miami, Houston and Los Angeles.

The idea is to make sure children learn how to swim at an early age, given how many people die every year simply because they haven't ever been taught.

Statistics show the problem afflicts minority children in particular because they often lack easy access to a pool. 

"It's an epidemic," said Gaines, now a well-known TV swimming analyst. "But we found the cure. And the cure is formal swimming lessons." 

Jones, 33, knows about the dangers first-hand. Long before he won glory in the water, he almost drowned in it. 

It was 1989, he was 5 years old and his inner tube flipped over at a water park in Pennsylvania. Jones didn't know how to swim, and half a minute passed before anyone in his family realized something was wrong. A lifeguard finally pulled him out, and Jones had to be resuscitated. 

"My mother put me in swimming lessons within the week," he said Thursday. 

About two decades later he was competing alongside Michael Phelps, becoming the first African-American swimmer to hold a world record and forming part of the U.S. 4 x 100 freestyle relay team that went to Beijing and beat France for the gold by eight one-hundredths of a second. 

New Orleans seemed as fitting a place as any to be promoting swim lessons. Louisiana typically sees the third-most drowning deaths each year in a country where drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children younger than 4 and the second-leading cause for those younger than 14, Gaines said.

There were two drowning deaths in pools in the metro area last summer in the space of just a few days: a 5-year-old girl in Metairie and a 2-year-old boy in the Bayou St. John neighborhood of New Orleans. 

Jefferson Parish Coroner Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich said that most of the children who end up drowning are actually being supervised by family members who simply let their guard down. 

"When 'everyone is watching,' then no one is really watching," Cvitanovich said. 

The children Jones worked with Thursday at UNO were taking lessons through a summer camp hosted by Holy Cross School.

UNO's swimming facility and the Belle Chasse YMCA received a total of $3,000 in grant money Thursday to provide free or reduced-price swimming lessons to locals. 

Anyone who masters the basics will reduce their chance of drowning by nearly 90 percent, Jones said. 

As he dried off after the swim session at UNO, 12-year-old Christopher Williams said he was grateful for the lessons. 

He used to be afraid of the water. Two lessons in, he said, "It's not too bad" and even entertained the thought of chasing a gold medal the way Jones did.

"I've got the backstroke down," Christopher said. "Now, I'm just going to work on that front stroke."

Information on opportunities for free or reduced-price local swimming lessons is available at www.usaswimmingfoundation.org.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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