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Cullen Jones, gold medal swim champ, is breaking barriers

LELAND STEIN III Special to the AmNews | 8/10/2012, 10:51 a.m.
Cullen Jones, gold medal swim champ, is breaking barriers

"My father played basketball," Cullen Jones told me in an interview. "I have the body and height for the sport, but I chose a different path."

He added, "I believe I chose the right path for me."

The 6-foot-5 Jones started swimming when he was 8 and fell in love with the sport. Now 28 years old, he has seen the sport take him all over the world.

"I was not afraid to put in the work, because it is a lot of work trying to train at a world-class level," Jones said. "Especially in the United States, where swimming is one of the most competitive sports you can be involved in."

First at the U.S. swim trials and now at the 2012 London Games, Jones showed the world that his gold medal in Beijing in 2008 was not a fluke and that he's dedicated to the sport of swimming, willing to endure the ups and downs of world-class competition.

After winning gold in the 2008 Olympic Games as a member of the electrifying 400-meter freestyle relay team that broke the world record in one of the most memorable races in history, Jones hit the talk circuit and became an ambassador for USA Swimming.

Swimming took a backseat for Jones after that for a minute. "Hey! I had been working hard and living in the pool," Jones exclaimed. "So I took some me time and enjoyed being young and failed to make the Worlds.

"I realized then that I had to make sure I kept swimming as my top priority. I went back to the pool and got myself ready for the U.S. Trials."

Jones' gold medal in 2008 made him only the second African-American to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, and he used that celebrity status to educate minorities on swimming safety.

He had an excellent showing in London, where he won two silver medals, one as a member of the 4x100 relay and the other, his first individual medal, finishing a fingernail short of gold in the 50-meter freestyle. "I thought I had the gold," Jones said after the race. "I swam fast, got to a good start and finished strong, but it wasn't meant to be. That has made me hungry for more."

Jones, one of the fastest freestyle sprinters in the world, currently holds the American record in the 50-meter freestyle. But more important to Jones is continuing to reach out to young African- American kids, partnering with the USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66.

"I partnered with the USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 to raise awareness about the importance of learning to swim," he said.

The "Make a Splash with Cullen Jones Tour Presented by Phillips 66" is visiting cities throughout America. On the tour, Jones shares his story about nearly drowning at a water park when he was 5. Speaking to crowds of as many as 1,000 children, he communicates the importance of water safety and learning to swim.

Each tour stop includes an in-water lesson, and the USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 presenting a $5,000 grant in each city to a learn-to-swim provider to provide free swimming lessons to local children.

"I realize that there have not been a lot of Black swimmers representing the U.S. at the games," Jones said. "I want to be a role model and many kids to get involved in swimming and use it as a vehicle to improve their lives and give them exposure to water safety."