Former NCSU swimmer Cullen Jones seeks greater glory in Olympics

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2012 

Cullen Jones sometimes keeps his Olympic gold medal in a safety deposit box. Usually, though, he keeps it where he sleeps, tucked underneath his mattress. In recent weeks and months as he has prepared for this summer’s London Olympics, Jones has often held that medal, or looked at it, to draw inspiration from the memory of winning it.

“Especially now, looking forward to London,” Jones said during a recent phone interview. “It’s good to kind of reminisce about the feeling of winning and how it felt to drape that over my neck. And I definitely look at it more now than I ever have before.”

Jones’ swimming career has been defined by his near-constant successes, and it has been amplified because he is seen as a pioneer for aspiring black swimmers. Now Jones, the former N.C. State standout who won the 2006 NCAA championship in the 50-meter freestyle, wants to be considered different because of how he’s changed since arriving on the national stage four years ago.

A self-described “young punk” in his younger years, Jones, 28, said he possesses far more confidence and maturity than he did four years ago when he was preparing for the Beijing Olympics. Back then he felt thankful just to be a part of the national team, and he felt a bit overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all.

“I think I’m not going to be kind of the deer in the headlights,” Jones said. “I mean, I definitely had that kind of syndrome in 2008 where I was just shocked and so happy to be a part of the team. But at the same time, it was almost overwhelming … I know I’m not the young punk anymore. I’m definitely more of a seasoned veteran.”

Embracing role model duties

Jones became the third African-American – and the second African-American male – to compete on a U.S. Olympic swimming team. And he became the second African-American swimmer to win Olympic gold when he helped the American 4x100 freestyle relay team to victory in Beijing.

Since 2008, though, Jones has found greater focus both in the pool and out of it, where he has played an integral role in the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative. Jones, who nearly drowned when he was 5 years old, has become the face of Make a Splash, which aims to teach children the importance of learning how to swim.

The program is aimed particularly at inner-city, minority children who otherwise wouldn’t have opportunities to take swimming lessons. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, seven out of 10 black children are unable to swim.

When he meets with kids through Make a Splash these days, Jones tells them his story. He tells them about not being able to swim when he was 5, and about how he nearly drowned at a water park. The reactions are almost always the same, he said.

“(They say), ‘No, it’s not possible. It’s not possible.’ They’re absolutely shocked,” Jones said.

Days after their son nearly died in the water, Jones’ parents enrolled him in YMCA swimming lessons. He hasn’t spent too much time out of the pool since, and Jones has been there especially often lately, training for London.

When he’s not traveling – Jones often gives motivational talks, works with Make a Splash and was recently in New York City as part of a corporate event with Citi to promote the start of the 100-day countdown to the Olympics – Jones is in Charlotte, training with SwimMAC (Mecklenburg Aquatic Club) and an elite group of swimmers

His coach, David Marsh, has sensed a change in Jones as the London games become closer and closer.

“That is Cullen’s M.O.,” Marsh said during a phone interview. “As I’ve said many times, Cullen reminds me more of like a prizefighter, where he doesn’t necessarily love to train. Training is kind of a necessary evil to be able to do what he loves to do, which is race, and he loves to race, and the bigger the setting, the bigger the venue, the better.”

Training for gold

During that recent trip to New York, Jones spent time with some Olympic athletes who have already qualified for London. The Olympic trials in swimming, though, don’t begin until June 25 in Omaha, Neb.

Which means, of course, that Jones still has about two more months to agonize over qualifying in his two individual events, the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle. Being a part of the gold-medal-winning relay team in Beijing was one thing, but Jones’ ultimate goal is to race, and to win, by himself.

“And that’s kind of been my big push looking towards London,” he said. “I was happy with 2008, of course, especially winning in the way that we did. But I’m just so hungry to swim in an individual event.”

The training sessions in Charlotte, at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center, have offered Jones plenty of motivation. On a near daily basis, he goes against fellow world-class sprinters Nick Brunelli and Josh Schneider.

They compete against one another but also offer encouragement and a constant measuring stick. If one has a great session on a Tuesday morning, the other two want to be the best on Wednesday.

“Just think of an all-star team in the NBA getting together and training for a good six to eight months,” Brunelli said during a phone interview. “I mean, we could be pretty good – and they’ll make each other better. That’s kind of what’s going on here with SwimMAC, and with Cullen around, and me around and Josh Schneider around.”

Marsh, the coach, began working with Jones about two months before the Olympic trials in 2008. In the four years since, Marsh said, Jones has improved in most areas – most notably in his preparation, technique and, especially, in his kicking ability.

That was the one area where Jones wanted to make the most progress between the end of the Beijing games and the start of those in London. On a recent Friday, Marsh said Jones’ competitiveness was noticeable, too. There was an edge to him that might not have been there months ago.

“This morning in practice, you know, I’ve got several world-class sprinters with me, and he was dominating the group in the power sprints,” Marsh said. “Six months ago, he’d be a lot more casual about how he was attacking that and addressing that. So yeah – it’s a lot of fun to coach Cullen, especially when the event gets close.”

Another motivating factor for Jones is the unspoken reality that, assuming he qualifies, this could be his final Olympics. He will be 32 when the 2016 Summer Games roll around, and he has aspirations out of the water.

Jones is interested in pursuing a career in fashion after his competitive swimming days are over, and he also plans to continue working with Make a Splash. Brunelli, who at 30 is another veteran, said he and Jones don’t talk about whether this could be their final chance to make an Olympic team.

But there is, Brunelli said, a quiet understanding.

“We try to stay away from that,” Brunelli said. “But we both know in the back of our head that this could be our last hurrah. And we want to go out on top. Both of us have said it before – our dreams are big. And we want to make sure we can achieve those goals before we finish with our career.”

Carter: 919-829-8944

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