London calling and Cullen Jones is answering

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJuly 25, 2012 

  • Jones’ Olympic resume 2012 events: 50-meter freestyle, 100M freestyle, 400M freestyle relay 2008 results: Gold medal in 400M freestyle relay World Championships resume 2009: Gold medal in 400M freestyle relay, 5th in 50M freestyle 2007: Gold medal in 400M freestyle relay, silver medal in 50M freestyle

Cullen Jones has a chance to wrap himself in glory – and in the American flag – three times in these Summer Olympics.

But to get to London, he first had to listen to his mother.

Last September, Jones was floundering – a big fish out of water. The former NCAA champion at N.C. State and Charlotte resident since 2008 had had a very bad World Championship meet in Shanghai, China. Jones did not even reach the final 16 in the lone event he had qualified to swim – the 50-meter freestyle, which is his specialty.

Jones and his mother, Debra, have always been very close. A few months later, with Jones still struggling to find his motivation, the two went on a vacation to Aruba. “Our first vacation together in 10 years,” Jones said. “She’s always so busy with work and I’m so busy with swimming.”

At a heart-to-heart dinner one night, Debra laid it out to Cullen, her only child. He said his mother was often frank with him “when I’m not motivated or not paying attention.”

“We had a really long talk and she asked me, ‘Do you want to do this anymore? And if you do, you can’t do it halfway.’ It kind of shot me back to when I was eight years old when she said we’re going to start swimming, and if you do it, you’re not going to stop in the middle.”

Recalled Debra Jones: “I said to him, ‘If this is what you want, you have to make the decision to do what you need to do so you can get where you need to go. Cullen likes to say ‘Yes,’ but he was going to have to tell people ‘No’ sometime. He could keep his sponsors happy without agreeing to every little thing. The main thing was he needed to train.”

Jones, 28, is an only child who has always been close to his mother. His father Ronald, a former small-college basketball player and a non-smoker, died of lung cancer in 2000.

So when she told him he must re-focus, somehow it hit him a little differently than it did when his head coach David Marsh at SwimMAC Carolina in Charlotte told him the exact same thing, or when his friend and fellow Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte called Jones from Florida to make sure he wasn’t skipping practice.

Jones won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 as part of the 4x100 freestyle relay. Afterward, he will tell you that he thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of that medal. And when it came time to get back in the water, Jones sometimes just didn’t want to. He would sometimes drive to another practice in Charlotte, take the key out of the ignition and just sit there in the car, wondering whether he should open the door and go inside.

“It’s happened more than once,” Jones said. “You have to take a deep breath and go: ‘I feel awful. Every part of my body hurts. And what sick part of me wants to get in here and do this again?’”

Ultimately, though, he went. And at the Olympic Trials in Omaha several weeks ago, Jones broke through with the best meet of his life. He won the 50-meter freestyle and he was second in the 100 free. That earned Jones two individual events at the London Olympics – he never has swum any before – as well as a spot on the 4x100 relay that he swam in 2008.

“I felt four years ago like that was my time and that was my moment,” Jones said. “But maybe it’s now.”

Near-drowning at 7

As an African-American in the mostly white world of swimming, Jones naturally gets noticed more often. He looks like an athlete at 6-foot-5 and a muscular 195 pounds, but in airports strangers sometimes guess that he’s a basketball player.

Jones has put his celebrity to good use. He has been featured on HBO for his work on trying to get more minority kids to learn how to swim and has made frequent appearances around the country for “Make a Splash,” a national child-focused water safety initiative created by the USA Swimming Foundation.

Jones gives the same personal story at most of those gatherings. When he was seven years old, living in New Jersey, he went with his mother and father to a water park in Pennsylvania. He wasn’t a good swimmer then, but he badly wanted to go on an inner-tubing waterslide. His father went down first, then Cullen, then his mother (who couldn’t swim well then and still can’t now).

Jones’ mother recalls hearing him screaming as he went down the ride – and then his scream was gone.

Told by his parents and the ride’s lifeguards not to let go of the inner tube, Jones had taken the advice too seriously. When his tube flipped at the bottom, where the ride emptied into a small pool, he held on and started taking one panicked, water-filled breath after another.

His parents yanked him out of the pool. After a few bad moments, Cullen coughed up several mouthfuls of water, caught his breath and asked the people bending over him what he could ride next.

That drowning scare motivated Jones’ parents to get him some swim lessons, and eventually Jones became one of the fastest sprint freestylers in the country. Jones starred at N.C. State and won an individual NCAA title as a senior in 2006. He stayed in Raleigh to train for more than a year then moved to Charlotte in 2008 to work under Marsh.

Olympics again in ’16?

Marsh likes to say that Jones “swims his best under the bright lights.” The coach has had better workout warriors, but he hasn’t had many swimmers do as well as Jones when it’s really time to get going. One of Jones’ favorite moments of the Olympic Trials was when he saw Marsh’s face after the 100-meter freestyle that guaranteed Jones a spot on the team.

“I think I shocked David,” Jones said. “I knew mentally I was in the best shape of my life. I’ve never looked like this, felt like this or been this strong. And that combined with all the stuff he’s taught me, the trials and errors we’ve had – I knew I could do it.”

His mother thought she knew, too. She took off from her work as a safety manager at a New Jersey public utility came to Omaha to watch her son, and he awarded her with flowers in front of the crowd after he won his spot in the Olympics.

Jones is the rare swimmer who makes “good money,” as Marsh puts it, because of the number of sponsors he has been able to acquire. With his gregarious nature and uplifting personal story, he has long attracted more attention and financial support than some swimmers of a similar caliber.

These Olympics, though, are the place where Jones can make another leap. And things are going so well now that he’s thinking he may stick around for the 2016 Olympics, to be held in Brazil when Jones is 32.

“David has told me I might want to take a year off, kind of like what some other swimmers have done,” Jones said. “I really want to start boxing. Well, I want to train like I’m a boxer. I don’t want to get hit. Just the training part. But I’ve thought about Rio, and I think I would love to do it all again.”

First, though, he has to see how London turns out. Just making it was an accomplishment – now Jones can add the words “London 2012” under the word “Beijing 2008” on his right biceps muscle underneath the tattoo of the five Olympic rings. But Jones also has a chance at more than one medal in these Games, and he knows it.

His mother does, too. Debra Jones has bought her ticket to London, where she hopes to counsel her son to find the same kind of “gentle balance” in his swimming as he has over the past few months. And if he needs a little bit of tough love while he’s there, too?

“Hey,” Cullen Jones said, “that’s what mothers are for.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter.com: @Scott_Fowler. Follow Scott’s reports from London throughout the Olympics.

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