Cullen Jones‘ impact on his sport shone again in late May, despite competition being shut down since March and swimmers at all levels kept out of pools due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jones, motivated by a message from 2012 Olympic teammate Lia Neal, created a group text chat among 10 to 20 Black swimmers sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The topic: How can we make our voices heard?
That kind of get-together was impossible during Jones’ ascent more than a decade ago. He was the first Black swimmer to hold a world record and the only Black swimmer on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.
The U.S. swim team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 could include multiple Black swimmers for both genders for the first time.
Jones, a 36-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist (two of each color), will not be one of them. He recently announced retirement from the highest level of swimming. The last member of the epic Beijing 4x100m freestyle relay to bow out.
His legacy includes not only records and medals, but also role model status for countless young swimmers. And the face of USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” program, barnstorming the last 12 years to help teach kids how to swim, particularly in underserved communities.
Jones is not finished working toward equality outside of the competition pool.
“George Floyd’s death is a catalyst for me,” Jones said in a June interview. “Just emboldens me to do more.”
Jones decided to speak out about discrimination, sharing stories of racism that he’s faced since becoming a swimmer after nearly drowning as a child. He filmed social media videos, joined a webinar series started by Jacob Pebley and Neal and contacted longtime sponsor Speedo.
“I always kept it very corporate,” Jones said. “I was always very neutral. You would never see me hanging out with my friends drinking, because I worked with kids. That wasn’t the image that I really wanted to put out there. When it came to my political ideals, I never really put it out there because I wanted my platform to be very straightforward, clean cut so that when companies want to align with me they know they’re aligning with a safe brand.
“But, after George Floyd’s death, I was of course enraged and upset.”
Jones and other Black swimmers helped USA Swimming recraft a June 1 statement condemning racism. On June 12, USA Swimming published a new statement, acknowledging that the sport, like society, fostered systemic racism. It detailed four short-term steps the organization would take.
Jones said “Make a Splash” was already in the process of restructuring before the pandemic. Now, he wants to be sure the tour hits the neighborhoods that most need it, such as the South Side of Chicago and Memphis.
More than 30 U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and national teamers came together to educate the swimming community on what Black Lives Matter means and to raise money for charities that support Black communities. Jones urged contributions to the Innocence Project to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
“Many times we’re expected to be athlete first, and then Black second,” Jones said on a webinar with Neal and two-time Olympic 50m freestyle gold medalist Anthony Ervin titled “Swimmers for Change.” (Neal and Ervin each have one African-American parent. Ervin’s dad is three quarters African American and one quarter Native American.)
“We need to keep our mouths open about things that are going on because we are the faces of what USA Swimming is in diversity,” Jones continued. “We need to make sure that these young people, as they’re coming up, they understand that they can look to us.”
Jones was born in the Bronx and moved to Irvington, N.J., as a kid. “Crips and the Bloods, gun shots, everything, that’s what I grew up around,” he said. “I leave my house, and I don’t wear certain colors because I don’t want one side to get upset.”
Jones, at “Make a Splash” stops, told families his swimming story. At age 5, he nearly drowned coming off a slide at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa.
“It can take as little as 20 seconds for a kid to drown,” Jones, whose best event, the 50m freestyle, is a 21-second splash and dash without taking a breath, wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2015. “I was under water for 30 seconds.”
Jones was rescued by a lifeguard and resuscitated with CPR. “The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on?'” Jones wrote. “My mom’s first words were, ‘We’re gonna get you swim lessons.'”
By 8, Jones began a competitive swim career that lasted nearly three decades.
At 15 years old, the mom of a swimmer that he finally defeated said, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?”
“I was not instructed to speak out at the time,” Jones said. “I was instructed to work harder and not let anyone get in my way. That determination is what led me to the podium at the Olympic Games.”
Jones carried that memory through college at NC State, where he regularly heard boos after winning races at dual meets in his senior season in 2006.
Then a few years ago, as an Olympic champion professional, Jones was pulled over by a police officer. He was told to pop the trunk. The officer didn’t have a warrant, but Jones complied. Inside of it were some fins, paddles, a kickboard, swimsuits and copies of Jones’ autographed card that he distributes.
“The guy looks, and he goes, oh, you’re that Black swimmer that went to the Olympics. OK, well you have a good day. Took off,” Jones said. “There’s so many different ways that this still happens today.”
The night after Floyd’s death, Jones was walking Vinny, his family’s French Bulldog, around 10 p.m. outside his South Carolina house in what he describes as a nice neighborhood.
He saw a police car go past, stop at an intersection, turn around and drive up to him. The officer rolled down his window and asked Jones if everything was OK. Yes, Jones told him. The officer asked how old Vinny was (six years). They made small talk about each owning dogs. Then the officer told him once more he wanted to make sure everything was OK and drove away.
“If I wasn’t 6-foot-5, muscular and Black, I don’t know that you would have necessarily turned around. You definitely wouldn’t have asked me twice if everything was OK by me walking my dog,” Jones said in recalling the interaction. “I had to verbally disarm him by telling my vast — not so vast — knowledge of dogs so that he would feel comfortable with me, even though he’s the one with the gun. And I’m going to have to teach my child [11-month-old Ayvn] how to do that.”
Jones became visible to the nation as part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay that won in Beijing, anchored by Jason Lezak‘s fastest split in history to overtake the French.
Jones earned the fourth and final spot on the team with the fastest split in the preliminary heat the night before. (That same night was one of Jones’ favorite memories: meeting the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team and LeBron James quipping, “Oh, snap, you got a brother on the team?”).
After Jones completed the third leg of the morning final, he was so exhausted that he said he “was blacking out.” Jones made what he called “an idiot move” and swam to the side of the pool to exit — traditionally done after individual races — rather than lift himself out right there at the wall.
When Lezak out-touched Alain Bernard, Jones was still on his way back to join the first two U.S. swimmers, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, behind the starting block. So Jones wasn’t in the immediate celebration photos and video that spread across the world.
But he was the only one to make the media rounds throughout the rest of the day because he didn’t have any more races left at the Games.
He estimated he did 13 hours of media that day. Jones returned to the Athletes’ village around 2 the next morning. He never cooled down after his swim. He was speechless after so many interviews when he entered his room, which he shared with close friend Ryan Lochte. (Lochte greeted Jones by jumping on his back, and even crying a little bit.)
Soon after, Jones received two phone calls that also changed his life. One, from a friend who told Jones, “Do you know what you just did? Tiger. Venus and Serena. That’s what you just did.”
Another, from the USA Swimming Foundation. Jones was told that drowning was the second-leading cause of accidental death in America. That 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1-4.
He became a leader for “Make a Splash,” which started in 2007. The tour took off after his involvement following the Beijing Olympics. Four millions kids have received swim lessons through the program and its local partners.
“I don’t think there’s any question, at least up to date now, that Cullen has certainly made the biggest impact on the African-American community and the Black community in general in the sport of swimming,” said Olympic champion and NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, who estimated he has traveled with Jones for more than 50 “Make a Splash” stops. “There are trailblazers, but nobody has made the overall impact of Cullen.
“We’ll look back on this — hopefully 20 or 30 years from now — he’ll be sort of our Jesse Owens and have had that kind of impact.”
Jones’ peers can attest.
Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an Olympic title for the U.S. in Rio. In her famous, tearful interview after the 100m freestyle, Manuel said the gold medal was not just for her, but for those who inspired her. She named Maritza Correia, the first Black woman on a U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004, and Jones.
Jack LeVant, a rising Stanford junior and 2019 World Championships team member, remembers sitting around the TV with his family back in 2008 to watch the relay. He was 8 years old.
“Cullen, undoubtedly, has been my biggest role model in the sport,” LeVant said. “It was so awesome to see someone who looked like me doing the things that I wanted to do one day.”
Which made an interaction between LeVant and Jones in 2017 so meaningful. Jones, in what turned out to be his last major meet, missed the world championships team by .02 of a second in the 50m free. LeVant, then 17, saw his idol on the pool deck.
“I was devastated for him,” LeVant said. “As he was walking by, I was like, yo, great job, Cullen, we all love you man. He stopped and he shook my hand. He looked me right in the eye and thanked me for saying that.”
Reece Whitley, a rising junior at Cal, remembered his first time meeting Olympians at a childhood swim meet. He was not there to compete. But his mom thought it would be a great idea for Whitley to see two Olympians who were there: Brendan Hansen (a Pennsylvania breaststroker like Whitley) and Jones. A decade later, Whitley, as a high school senior, was an instructor at a “Make a Splash” stop with Missy Franklin, Gaines and Jones.
“A lot of professional swimmers, once they get to their later 30s and early 40s, and once they have a kid and start a family, they kind of leave the sport, but Cullen clearly has a mission that I stand behind, and he’s going to stick with it until everything is right,” Whitley said.
Jones’ devotion to “Make a Splash” was so ardent that Neal believes it cost him in competition.
“He was traveling so much for ‘Make A Splash’ one year leading up to trials,” she said. “He wasn’t able to reach his potential that summer of making whatever team that was because he also dedicated so much of himself to advocating for water safety.”
In a way, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Jones’ original mission.
“This kind of puts a halt on all the kids that could have learned how to swim this summer because these public pools are being shut down,” Neal said, “but then when you have private pools still opening, that attracts more predominantly white families and kids, and they’re still on track to learn how to swim.”
Jones said that, at last check a few years ago, the amount of African-American children who couldn’t swim dropped to 64 percent, from 70 percent when he partnered with “Make a Splash” in 2008.
There were similar improvements for Latin American and white children. Jones attributed the success at least partially to swimming’s popularity — “the Michael Phelps phenomenon.”
“At the same time, you had this water safety prevention initiative that was there, screaming, i.e. me, that it’s important to get kids to learn how to swim,” he said. “So to see those numbers drop in my lifetime, I did not even expect that, let alone to see it in about eight years.”
The USA Swimming Foundation told a story from 2010, when “Make a Splash” stopped in Shreveport, La., three months after six Black teenagers drowned in the Red River.
The foundation reported that six kids total showed up for the swim clinic with Jones, all terrified.
“I got out of the pool,” Jones said after eventually getting all six into the water, according to the foundation. “I went into the bathroom, and I just started crying. I thought, ‘I get it. This is what I need to be doing.'”
MORE: Jason Lezak’s memories of Beijing Olympic relay
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