As whites retreated to the suburbs and built pools in backyards and private clubs, blacks still had little access to public pools. Save for a municipal pool-building boomlet in the late 1960s that was designed to help prevent urban race riots—"State and local governments funded hundreds of local pools in urban areas to quite literally cool down angry black Americans," says Contested Waters author Jeff Wiltse, an associate professor of history at the University of Montana—cities stopped building pools and let existing ones deteriorate until they had to be closed.
As African-American participation in swimming continued to lag, some came up with explanations for the inability of most blacks to swim. One popular hypothesis—which has since been discredited—proffered by Ohio University's zoology department in a 1969 study titled "The Negro and Learning to Swim," was that blacks weren't as buoyant as whites. Among the reasons cited for this were blacks' purportedly lower lung capacity, heavier bones and poor physiological response to cold. (Dodgers vice president Al Campanis repeated the buoyancy theory in his notorious Nightline appearance in 1987.)
This blacks-can't-swim message, along with shabby or nonexistent pools and a lack of black swimming coaches, discouraged many African-Americans from even trying. But a few blacks swam against the current of stereotyping and achieved elite-level success. In 1984 Chris Silva, a UCLA senior from Menlo Park, Calif., was nationally ranked in the 4 × 100-meter freestyle relay and became the first black to swim in the U.S. Olympic Trials. In 1999 Sabir Muhammad, an Atlantan who won 10 NCAA titles and had set three U.S. records while at Stanford, became the first African-American to co-captain a U.S. international swim team, at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
Both men later became leaders in the effort to attract blacks to competitive swimming. Silva was the director of minority programs at the International Swimming Hall of Fame until his death in a car accident in 1990. Muhammad merged a minority-focused swim program he helped start at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Atlanta with Make a Splash in 2007.
Jones cannot overstate the impact swim lessons have had on his life. While growing up in inner-city Irvington, he kept his swimming a secret from friends and many relatives, fearing he'd be teased if they found out. At the Y he discovered an affinity for racing. By age eight he was on a club team in Newark, competing against other black swimmers. By 15 he had moved on to an otherwise all-white team in West Orange that trained at a Jewish community center, where he was often the only black person in the building. His senior year of high school he landed a scholarship to North Carolina State. "Now, this is the same kid who about 10 years ago almost drowned at an amusement park," says Jones. "I was amazed."
Along the way he faced adversity that would steel his resolve. He lost his father, Ronald, a nonsmoker, to lung cancer during his junior year of high school. He worked as a lifeguard, among many other jobs, so he wouldn't be a burden to his mother, a health and safety policy manager for the utility company PSE&G.
In college, he won five ACC titles and, in 2006, an NCAA championship in the 50-meter freestyle—N.C. State's first national swimming crown in 13 years. Jones turned pro shortly thereafter. He signed a seven-year, $2 million endorsement deal with Nike (at the time, the richest endorsement deal ever for a short-distance swimmer) and proved his worth at the '06 Pan Pacific games, during which he became the first African-American to break a world record (in the 4 × 100-freestyle relay) and the first to set an individual-event world record (in the 50 freestyle).
Still, even after his Beijing relay gold, he refuses to rest on his laurels. That's why he labors at the pool in Charlotte, trying to perfect his breathing, fine-tune his kick and improve his turns. An individual Olympic gold would give him even more sway with lawmakers, who keep insisting on closing city pools to help close budget gaps. Last summer Philadelphia shut down 27 of its 70 pools to cover a $600,000 shortfall.
An individual gold might also give Jones the kind of mainstream fame that could help bring an end to shameful incidents such as the banning of 65 Philadelphia minority summer-camp kids from a private club in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., last summer. Though they had been invited by the club, opposition from its members (some of whom used racial epithets) led to the kids' ouster. The Department of Justice sued the club in January but effectively halted action in May after the club was bought in bankruptcy by a local synagogue.
"What do you expect kids to do when you're shutting down pools?" Jones asks. "The only places they can go are the private places. Unfortunately, they're gonna turn the kids away."