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Cullen Jones: All-American Role Model

By Emily Kaplan | July 29, 2012, 1 p.m. (ET)

Cullen Jones

The messages flood Cullen Jones’ Twitter timeline, his Facebook page and his personal website.

Well-wishers tell Jones how much they are rooting for him and how much they admire him. The 28-year-old New Jersey native does his best to respond to as many as possible.

But there are certain inquiries Jones always makes sure to answer.

“I get messages from a lot of kids who say, ‘I’m the only African American kid on my team and it’s really hard,’ ” said Jones. “I try to be there as much as I can for them. I was in that position once. 

Jones became just the second African-American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal when he anchored the 4x100 freestyle relay team in Beijing.

In London, he can bring home even more hardware. The sprinter will compete in two individual events -- the 50 and 100 freestyle -- after he swam what he considers “one of the best meets of my life” at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha.

Perhaps just as important as Jones’ emergence as a star swimmer for Team USA is his emergence as a role model.

Jones -- a social media maven who picked up close to 19,000 followers since joining Twitter three years ago --  adopted the role of big brother to thousands of kids.

“I’m very thankful for the position I’ve been put into as a leader,” said Jones. “I don’t take it lightly.”

The charismatic, 6-foot-5 sprinter -- rarely seen without a smile -- has been a public face of USA Swimming Foundation’s Make A Splash campaign, a child-focused water safety initiative.

Jones is particularly interested in teaching minorities to swim. According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children cannot swim.

Jones used to be one of them.

As a 5-year-old, Jones nearly drowned at a water park when his tube flipped over on a slide. For 30 seconds he was submerged underwater, clinging to his tube because he didn’t know what else to do.

He was clinically dead, according to his mother.

“When she told me [the story] at age 12, she broke down in tears,” Jones recalled. “I never want that for any parent.”

Jones’ mother signed him up for swimming classes within a week. Now, the sprinter has toured the country encouraging parents to do the same.

His efforts have garnered attention, after sharing his story with thousands of children then jumping into the pool for free lessons.

Citi selected Jones as a Team Citi athlete earlier this year.  Citi’s “Every Step of the Way” program will help fund the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic sport programs that inspire members of Team Citi and benefit future U.S. athletes. Fans can vote on how Citi’s $500,000 donation to the U.S. Olympic Committee is allocated among the various sport programs, including Make A Splash, by visiting Citi’s website.

“I certainly don’t have as many followers as some of my friends,” joked Jones, who is rooming with Ryan Lochte in London. “But they are an amazing support system. They inspire me and I hope I inspire them.”

Winning three more medals -- Jones will also compete in the relay 4x100m freestyle relay -- would certainly be inspiring. It would also help bring attention to his cause.

But it could also be a burden, said three-time gold medalist Rowdy Gaines.

“Next to Michael [Phelps], I think Cullen Jones faces the most pressure on the team this year,” Gaines said. “I say that because of his race. There's a lot riding on his shoulders. A lot of people are pulling for him.”

If anyone can handle the added stress, it seems to be Jones.

“I mean look at him,” Gaines said, pointing over to Jones at a press event for the Citi campaign at the USA House in London. Jones was across the room, laughing with a broadcast TV reporter as the two shared stories about growing up in New Jersey.

“Cullen just has the personality where he can be handle the pressure and the press in stride,” Gaines said. “He’s matured so much physically and emotionally since he first came on the scene. He really is a role model.”

Jones said in London, he’s just focused on “swimming free,” a phrase his coach often uses.

“Swimming free means not thinking about outside stuff in the pool,” Jones said. “While I’m swimming I can’t think about being one of the few African American swimmers, and I can’t think of the kids who look up to me. I just need to swim my race and everything else will take care of itself.”

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