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Posted: Saturday July 5, 2008 1:18AM; Updated: Saturday July 5, 2008 1:18AM
Kelli Anderson Kelli Anderson >

Jones seizes swimming spotlight

Story Highlights
  • Cullen Jones broke the U.S. record in the 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. trials
  • Jones is the the third African-American in the history of the U.S. Olympic team
  • Jones hopes minority children will be inspired to take swimming lessons
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Cullen Jones has a chance to become the first African-American swimmer to strike gold.
Cullen Jones has a chance to become the first African-American swimmer to strike gold.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Cullen Jones can still picture the top of the water slide at Dorney Park in Pennsylvania where his life took a fateful turn when he was five years old. His dad Ronald, had made him promise to not let go of the inner tube on the way down, so, Ronald shot down the slide, screaming all the way, Cullen followed, gripping the tube tightly. "When I hit the bottom of the ride, there was this huge pool of water, and I flipped right over," Jones recalls. But he didn't let go of the tube. "I actually passed out," he says. "They had to give me CPR, and when I woke up, I was like, okay, what's the next ride? It could have changed my life completely if it was traumatic. I might never have touched the water again."

It was traumatic for Jones' mom, Debra, who signed up her only child for swimming lessons the next week. Jones started competitive swimming a few years later, and on Thursday night, he became just the third African-American to make an Olympic swim team when he finished third in the 100 free, good enough for a place on the 4x100 relay team. On Friday morning, Jones set an American record of 21.59 in the 50 free preliminaries and emerged from the pool to a standing ovation.

This is just the spotlight Jones has been hoping for since he burst onto the international swim scene with a Pan Pac win in the 50 free two years ago. He's hoping minority kids will see his success, get inspired and demand their parents take them to get swim lessons. Jones isn't necessarily trying to inspire the next Michael Phelps, though he wouldn't mind that. Mostly he doesn't want any little kid to have an experience like he did that doesn't have a happy ending.

A recent study sponsored by USA Swimming found that nearly 60 percent of African-American and Hispanic and Latino kids in the United States don't know how to swim, twice the percentage of their Caucasian counterparts, and that they are more than twice as likely to drown. To help address the problem, Jones has talked to schools in at-risks communities and held free swim clinics at YMCAs as part of USA Swimming's Make A Splash Initiative. "Learning to swim is a matter of safety," he says.

A surge in swimming's visibility coupled with his sponsorship with high-profile companies like Nike could give him an unprecedented platform to reach minority kids, says Jones. "The timing has been great. I love the fact that I can be a role model, that I've been given that title and that label. As Tiger Woods did for golf, I'm hoping that I can ascend to a level where I can do that for swimming."

Jones is not the first elite-level black swimmer in the U.S. "There were a number before me. But the problem is, they didn't get exposure. Maritza Correira (2004 silver medalist in the 4x100 relay) got exposure for being the first black female Olympic swimmer, but did she get enough? Not really."

Jones' first swim team, in Newark, was predominantly African-American. His role model, however, was Gary Hall, Jr., who swam in his first Olympics in 1996, when Jones was 12. "I never had an African-American swimmer come up and talk to me ... but Gary Hall, Jr. was big," says Jones, who kept a poster of Hall on his wall. "Watching the '96 Olympics, and watching him swim, I was really psyched. I was like, Dad, that's where I want to be. He said, 'Really? Then you have to put some work in.'"

Ronald passed away from lung cancer when Jones was 16, but Jones kept working, becoming a star at NC State before signing a lucrative deal with Nike two years ago. In the finals of the 50 on Saturday, he'll be racing in the same field as Hall, who is trying to make his fourth Olympic team. It's not likely Jones will turn to jello in Hall's presence like he did four years ago in Long Beach, when he was, he confesses, completely psyched out by the sight of Hall in his boxing robe and didn't make the semifinals. After all, it was Hall's eight-year-old American record that Jones broke Friday morning.

Jones wants to win Saturday, of course, and he wants to be seen. "My job is swim really fast," he says," and maybe some kid will be sitting on a couch looking at me, and saying, Dad, I want to do that."

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