In the first three days of XXX Olympiad in London, 17-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps has yet to win a gold medal, and the reigning world champion Ryan Lochte’s, who seemed poised to have a huge start, star has dimmed a bit since he captured gold 48 hours earlier in the 400-meter individual medley. But despite top swimmers dismal start, head coach Gregg Troy now turns to World Record holder, and 2008 Olympic gold medalist, Cullen Jones to provide the spark Team USA desperately need.
Born in the Bronx, but a transplant of Irvington, New Jersey, Jones was five-years-old when he nearly drowned in a water-slide accident. 23 years later, the 28-year-old is back on the Olympic blocks, competing for the first time in individual events (the 50 and 100-meter freestyle) this week at the London Aquatics Centre. After winning gold as part of the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay team during the Beijing Games, Jones swam the third leg of the 4×100 free relay Sunday, handing the struggling Lochte a 0.55-second lead, to help the U.S. win a silver medal. Now, the sprinter’s focus shifts to capturing gold in the 100 free final Wednesday night and the 50 free final on Friday. He qualified for 100 free semifinals this morning clocking in at 48.16 to place ninth. Life + Times caught up with Jones, who is one of three African-American’s on the U.S. Olympic swim team, in between races overseas to speak on debunking stereotypes, altruism and going for gold.
L+T: This is your second Olympics. In 2008, you were the only African-American on the team. This year, you’re one of three, joining gold-medalist Anthony Ervin and newcomer Lia Neal. How proud are you of the fact that the three of you are making Olympic history in and out of the water?
Cullen Jones: I’m very proud of that. I definitely think it’s something that we will all look back on after the London games and kind of marvel at. For now, I think we’re all kind of focused on London and wanting to be the best at this stage. But we’re very excited and we’re happy.
L+T: The numbers are extremely low for African-American swimmers. You’re heavily involved with USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative to help promote the sport in the inner city. Speak on your role with the campaign.
Jones: Definitely, USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 first approached me in 2008 right after winning the gold medal and showed me the drowning statistics. The numbers are crazy. It’s astounding. After reading that 70 percent of African-Americans don’t know how to swim and 60 percent for Hispanics, I thought of my own family and friends who can’t swim. It became really real to me and I said, “I need to be a part of this and try to help save lives, save souls.”
L+T: Since you’ve become the spokesman for “Make a Splash,” making appearance on Capitol Hill and BET’s 106th & Park, the awareness of these staggering numbers have increased.
Jones: This initiative has been very, very big part of my life the past five years. I almost drowned when I was five, so I understand where a lot of kids are coming from. We are seeing the numbers changing, so it’s been a success. I enjoy traveling all over the U.S. and having kids that are so nervous and kind of getting them to understand and relax around the water. It’s been very humbling.
L+T: I’m going to throw out a few names to you. In a word or two, describe each individual. The first person up is Carl Lewis.
Jones: The definition of an athlete.
L+T: Michael Phelps.
Jones: A really good friend… It’s funny you ask that as he’s walking up on me now.
L+T: LeBron James.
Jones: Talented…it’s hard to put these people in one word because some of them I know.
L+T: President Obama.
L+T: Lia Neal.
Jones: Another just raw talent.
L+T: Cullen Jones.
Jones: Aww man…I would say a question mark. I’m still writing that chapter. I guess role model, cause I like to think of myself as one.
L+T: You won gold in Beijing. What do you hope to accomplish individually this go around at the Olympics?
Jones: Absolutely, I think medaling is where I want to be. Getting myself up on that podium potentially is huge for me. Whether it’s in the 50 or 100 or both for my country, it’s huge. I didn’t understand how proud I am to be an American in 2008 until I was on that podium. I listened to what Michael [Phelps] said. He said each time, every time he was up there, all eight times; it’s a different feeling. So, I’m excited to get on that podium again.