The same tragedy almost befell Muhammad's parents.
When he was 3, Muhammad ran into a river at a family reunion and would surely have drowned. But his father, who learned to swim in the ponds around his hometown of Winnfield, Louisiana, dived in and saved his son's life.
No one else there that day knew how to swim.
Swimming is a lot like reading in that it's so much easier to learn as a child. Yet, for a variety of reasons, getting in the water is not a priority for many black families in America.
For many years, segregation kept black people out of public pools and beaches. Later, sham studies claimed African-Americans were less buoyant and, therefore, more disadvantaged in the water than whites.
Over generations, as many blacks were kept out of the water, some developed a fear, says Carol Irwin, a health sports sciences professor in Memphis, Tennessee, who researched the issue for USA Swimming. Many were too afraid to let their children learn to swim.
The people Irwin interviewed for her research cited other reasons as well for not getting wet.
Some said they got no encouragement from their parents or other elders in the family. Or that it was a matter of not getting their hair wet.
Some people complained that the chemicals in swimming pools, as well as the salt in the ocean, made their skin dry and ashen.
Others cited difficulty in accessing public pools or having no money to pay for swim classes, a common problem Butts is trying to combat in Ohio.
A ticket out
Muhammad says he got lucky when his mother, Jessica, got a job as a locker-room attendant at a pool in a public housing project in downtown Atlanta.
She collected dirty clothes and put them in baskets. She was one step up from a janitor.
Muhammad was 7 then and often sat and watched his mother work. One day he got into the pool.
He learned to swim and later became a lifeguard and raced with the Dolphins, Atlanta's first inner-city team. By the time he neared graduation, Stanford University in California offered him a full swimming scholarship.
Swimming erased his fears and gave him confidence. In the water, he felt the whole world was his.
"Think about it," he says. "It's a daunting experience for a child who can't swim to get into the water. To overcome that is huge. There's nothing else that's as binary as live or die."
Getting wet, learning life
All the kids at the Adamsville Natatorium know Muhammad --- the trailblazer in the water. They need a hero like him, Wilcox says. In the YMCA-funded research she conducted for USA Swimming, people told her that it would take more than an informational flyer to put their kids in the water.
They wanted an advocate, someone they could trust. This was a matter of life and death, after all. Jackson, the coach, says he wants to give his students a head start in life, just as he did for Muhammad.