By Aimee Berg
NEW YORK – Remember Cullen Jones? At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he swam the third leg in one of the most dramatic relays of all time: the men’s 4x100 free. In the final meters, Jason Lezak closed a sizable gap on Alain Bernard and out-touched the Frenchman by eight-hundredths of a second. The victory not only kept Michael Phelps’ attempt to win eight gold medals alive, but it lowered the world record by nearly four seconds.
But where’s Jones in all the photos? The 28-year-old Bronx-born swimmer answered this and an array of other burning questions in midtown Manhattan on April 12.
Where are you training? What’s your race schedule? What’s your plan for the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska (June 25-July 2)?
I’m still in Charlotte, North Carolina, training with Dave Marsh. I’ve been with Dave for four years. My only race between now and Trials will be the Charlotte UltraSwim, May 10-13. At Trials, I’ll do 50m and 100m free. The 100 is definitely my baby now.
Any injuries or struggles since Beijing?
No injuries. Probably the hardest thing was the swim-off against my training partner Josh Schneider to make the 2011 World Championship team in the 50 free. They took two Americans. Nathan Adrian already made it. Josh and I tied for second at nationals. The swim-off was in Charlotte [at the USA Swimming Grand Prix. The decisive race was delayed because Schneider had broken his hand later at nationals]. I won [by .04 seconds] but was disappointed at Worlds. [In Shanghai, Jones was eliminated in the heats of the 50 free]. I came back this year with new luster to be better.
Did you take time off to regroup?
I took no time off after the 2011 Worlds and it was a hectic summer of racing and more racing. Ryan Lochte told me I should probably [race as much as possible] so I can eliminate mistakes in the 50. Looking back, it was absolutely the right thing. The more I race, the more I can eliminate subtle mistakes.
The 50 free is one length of the pool. It’s so short that mistakes are hard to see, so what are they? What are you fine-tuning?
Overall fitness is the biggest thing for me. I didn’t feel strong last year even though I beat Josh at the swim-off. I feel a lot stronger now. I feel more broken down than ever with [coach] Marsh.
How have you altered your training to gain strength? What do you do in the gym?
It’s almost like Cross Fit workouts, and a lot more Olympic lifts. I’m able to move heavier weights without bulking up. Before, a lot of my workouts were more endurance based. Every day was different; it’s called muscle confusion. I still do that, but now there are shorter rest periods. It’s much more intense.
Are you lighter than you were leading up to Beijing?
I’m 6-5, and I’m between 212 and 215. At the last Olympics, I was probably 201. The extra weight is muscle.
What’s new outside of swimming?
This year everything is focused on swimming. I haven’t missed a U.S. team since 2006 and I don’t plan to miss one. I’ve competed at three world championships (2007, 2009, 2011), and the last Olympics.
Any chance you’ll stick around for the 2016 Olympics?
David [Marsh] told me I should think about this as the last one. So I’m only focused on London. Buuuuuut, Jason [Lezak] is still at it at 36, so there’s a small chance you might see me around for Rio. I’d be 32.
Back to the 4x100 relay in Beijing … The team’s reaction when Lezak came from behind to touch the wall first and obliterate the world record the US had set in the semifinals was one of the most iconic moments of the Games. We’ve seen that intense reaction shot hundreds of times, but as part of the team that swam it, what the lasting image you have?
One thing I laugh at is -- I swam the third leg. When you’re done, you swim to the side or pull yourself out of the water. Everyone always asks: Where’s Cullen in all the pictures? I was at the side of the pool just trying to grab air.
Michael Phelps was trying to win an unprecedented eight gold medals in a single Olympics. Did you feel extra pressure to keep his bid going?
Michael Phelps never made it about him. He never said anything about going for eight. It made it a lot easier for the team.
Are you still in touch with your fellow gold medalists?
Yeah. I’m pretty tight with all the guys: Nathan [Adrian], Ryan [Lochte], Michael…
Internationally right now, who’s the man to beat in 100 free?
James Magnussen of Australia just swam 47.1 already [on March 15 in Adelaide] – in a regular suit, jammers. [Note: the world record is 46.91, set by Cesar Cielo of Brazil in 2009.]
It’s kind of early to peak, isn’t it?
Speaking of suits, FINA changed the specs this year. Do you know which suit you’ll be using at Trials?
I’m still with Nike. But they’re open to letting me wear any suit.
How will you decide? Is there an elaborate testing system?
Every meet, I try different suits. It’s trial and error.
The most important thing might be the integrity of seams. Were you in Indianapolis last month when Nathan Adrian’s suit ripped as he came off the starting block and he still beat Phelps in the 100 free?
I was there, but I wasn’t in his race. I was in the heat just before. Ryan Lochte and I were standing right behind him. And we were like, “Oooooooohhhhh.” [Wince.]
Have you ever ripped a suit in a race?
It’s happened to me, but not in my professional days. You get blowouts all the time.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.