Three years ago, Cullen Jones stepped out of a pool in Beijing, China, and into history as the second African-American to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. He competed as part of the 4 x 100 meter relay team that won in a world-record 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds.
Since then, Jones has criss-crossed the country, encouraging Black kids to swim as part of USA Swimming’s Make a Splash program.
”I didn’t expect to be a role model,” says Jones, 26. “But I’m certainly proud to be one.”
While Jones acts as a pied piper in the pool, the enthusiasm he finds in Black youth seems to have buoyed his career. Two years ago he set an American record in his specialty, the 50-meter freestyle. He expects to represent the U.S. again at the 2012 London Olympics.
That Jones became a swim champion is remarkable considering that as a 5-year-old, he almost drowned at an amusement park. “My mom [Debra] knew I was a water baby, so after I nearly drowned, she didn’t say, ‘No more swimming,’ she signed me up for lessons,” he says. “She understood that swimming is not just an activity, it’s a life skill.”
But getting other Black parents to understand remains a challenge. Jones recalls one parent who wouldn't let her son take free lessons. Why not? Because, she said, she can’t swim and wouldn’t be able to save him from drowning.
Jones says there are three reasons more Blacks don’t swim: fear, parental resistance and physical appearance.
“Black women spend a lot of money on their hair, and they don’t really want to do something that’s going to get their hair wet,” he says with a laugh. “And a lot of guys say they don’t want to wear a skimpy brief in the pool.”
The six-foot-five Jones has cut an impressive figure in the water while achieving significant feats:
** First African-American male to win gold at the World University Games in 2005
** First African-American to set a swimming world record at the Pan Pacific Games in 2006
** World’s fastest time in winning the 50-meter freestyle in 2006
** Four-time Atlantic Coast Conference champion and NCAA champion at North Carolina State
Jones deserves another medal for inspiring kids to follow in the strokes of Black swim champions like himself, as well as Anthony Ervin, who won gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and Anthony Nesty, who won the 100-meter butterfly at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
Image: United States Swimming/ Make a Splash Foundation