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Cullen Jones’ Experience As A Young Black Swimmer Set Him On A Course To Be A Pioneering Black Olympian

By Marc Lancaster | Feb. 05, 2021, 2:51 p.m. (ET)

Cullen Jones warms up at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials on June 27, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.


As a kid growing up in New Jersey, Cullen Jones loved being in the water. He would spend hours in the bathtub, playing with his toys and generally tiring himself out — which, as a new father himself, he now realizes was probably his mother’s motivation for putting him in the tub in the first place.

So when his mother Debra decided one day that the family should go to Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to enjoy the rides and the waterpark there, 5-year-old Cullen was ecstatic. Like his mother, he had not actually learned to swim, but that never crossed his mind that day as he prepared to follow his father, Ronald, down a waterslide on an inner tube. 

On the way down the slide, Cullen flipped over. His father had instructed him to hold onto the inner tube no matter what, but now it was keeping him trapped under the water. He eventually lost consciousness, and a lifeguard had to revive him with CPR. Debra would later tell him he had been under water for at least 30 seconds. 

Jones now understands how perilous his situation was; 30 seconds is sufficient to cause brain damage. But the experience would end up altering the course of Jones’ life — and later, countless others — in a much more positive way. He would get swimming lessons, fall in love with the sport, become a two-time Olympian and bring home four medals.

That alone would represent a legacy anyone could take pride in, but Jones’ impact on the sport runs far deeper. He has spent more than a decade working with the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative, making it his mission to help children around the country learn how to swim — particularly young Black girls and boys who, like him all those years ago, simply haven’t been exposed to the pool.

“This has been why I’ve worked with Make a Splash for 13 years and why learning to swim has been such a huge piece of my life,” Jones said. “I remember that day and almost drowning, but what I remember the most were the five teachers that it took me to get comfortable with the water again.”

Jones’ path to the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games began at the YWCA pool near his home in New Jersey. His mother was determined never to see her only child go through an experience like that again, so she insisted upon lessons. But Cullen couldn’t get over the hump with his first few teachers. Finally, when he was about 7, he found “Coach Brad,” who broke through and helped him eliminate any lingering fear of the water.

“He said one simple thing,” Jones said, “and I use this to this day when I teach kids and I will do it with my son as well: If air is coming out of your nose, water can’t get in your nose.” 

Coach Brad used the example of a tissue. You don’t sniff it into your nose, you blow out. So do the same thing with the water.

“That simple thing that he told me to do — the funniness of me thinking about sniffing in a tissue — was enough for me to really put the two and two together and understand,” Jones said. “That’s why when I have classes, I don’t allow any of my students, adults or children, to hold their nose in my class. Because I need them to master breathing.

“So, once I got over that hump, then it just became a passion and a domino effect of me loving swimming.”

That love didn’t initially come with lofty goals. Jones didn’t watch the Olympics or model himself after the elite swimmers of the era. But he did want to be the best at whatever he was doing at the time — this kick set or that race at the local Y. Eventually, a competitive streak honed by his father blended with the sport that had become almost an accidental obsession.

“He was a basketball player, wanted me to be a basketball player, so when I started swimming, he thought of it as a recreational thing,” Jones said. “He didn’t think it was going to really stick. Maybe because he knew the stigma: ‘Black people don’t swim.’ I don’t know. But he just supported me in anything that I wanted to do.”

My passion is that when my son touches that water and decides to swim, no one’s looking at him calling him the N-word or thinking of him as anything less than a super-fast swimmer.

Cullen Jones, Swimming

Jones would eventually find that swimming suited him particularly well because it wasn’t like basketball. In the pool, he began to see tangible results based on how much work he put in — something that wasn’t necessarily guaranteed in a team sport. At his mother’s urging, he began to focus more on nutrition, to take practice more seriously, and he did improve. 

Jones would go on to swim for North Carolina State, winning the NCAA championship in the 50 freestyle in 2006 and becoming an impact sprinter for Team USA in international competition. He made the U.S. team for the 2008 Beijing Games — the only Black U.S. swimmer — and was part of the 4x100 freestyle relay team that set a world record in the preliminaries, then smashed it by nearly four seconds in the legendary showdown with France and Australia to take the gold medal. 

Four years later in London, he once again swam the third leg in the final as the U.S. finished with a silver in the free relay. Four days later, he took silver in the 50 free, and he finished his Olympics with gold in the 4x100 medley relay.

During his career Jones became the first Black swimmer to hold a world record as well.

Along the way, he realized he had a platform. He would attend Make a Splash events and find that young Black swimmers saw him as a role model. He first met Simone Manuel at one of those events, and she was initially too nervous in his presence to speak with him. 

In August 2016, after Manuel won the 100-meter freestyle to become the first Black U.S. woman to win an individual Olympic gold in swimming, she took time in her press conference to thank Jones for setting an example. 

“I was in a dark place because I missed 2016 myself and I wanted to be there,” Jones said, “but to hear this Black woman who finally got the gold, first Black female to get a gold medal individually, and she’s saying thank God for people to look up to like Maritza Correia and Cullen Jones? That blew my mind.”

That nod of respect was a clear indicator of Jones’ stature within the sport, and his role as a voice for the underrepresented has only grown within the past year. Last May 26, the night after George Floyd died while being arrested by police in Minneapolis, Jones was walking his dog outside his house when a police officer drove by, then turned around and came back to engage him in conversation. 
“It wasn’t the house, it wasn’t the nice car, it wasn’t the nice dog, it was my frame at 9:30 walking my dog at night that stood out that he had to whirl his car around and come up to me,” Jones said. “And it didn’t matter that I was an Olympian — two-time, four medals, world record holder. All of these things did not matter. The color of my skin was the issue. … It hit me so hard to my core.”
Jones had maintained a low public profile on social justice issues to that point, but he had had enough. He spoke out about the incident on social media and began to have conversations with other Black swimmers about banding together for the greater good. They called their coalition Team Black, and they continue to meet regularly to discuss how they can support the next generation. 

Now 36 and retired from competition, Jones is doubling down on his efforts to diversify the sport he loves. He draws inspiration from any number of experiences, beginning with his own, but everything crystalizes when he watches his son, Ayvn, who was born in July 2019. 

Just like his dad, the little guy already has shown an inclination toward the water, leading Jones’ wife Rupi to exclaim in mock horror, ‘Oh God, another swimmer.’ Whether Avyn ends up spending as much time in the pool as dad remains to be seen, but Cullen is determined to ensure he feels welcome in the sport. 

“I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a real change in the sport of swimming, which has been very exclusively a white-dominated sport,” he said. “And I don’t want this just to be a Black thing, this is about diversity in general. For LGBTQ, for Asian, Indian — my wife’s Indian — I want everyone to feel accepted by this sport. 

“From the day that I watched my son touch water and saw the smile on his face, I knew that this is now my new passion. My passion is that when my son touches that water and decides to swim, no one’s looking at him calling him the N-word or thinking of him as anything less than a super-fast swimmer.”

Marc Lancaster

Marc Lancaster is a writer and editor based in Charlotte. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Cullen Jones