In My Opinion

Fowler: Cullen Jones eases back into pool

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 28, 2013 


LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 02: Cullen Jones of the United States reacts after competing in the Men's 50m Freestyle semi final1 on Day 6 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on August 2, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)


Six months after a near-perfect 2012 Olympics, Cullen Jones is back in the water.

Sort of.

Jones, who will turn 29 Friday, has fully committed to trying to make his third U.S. Olympic team in 2016. The former N.C. State star swimmer has made Charlotte his home base since 2008. He said he is “95 percent sure” he will continue to live and train in Charlotte through at least the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.

As for training … well, Jones has never been a great practice guy. He has maintained his status as one of the world’s best freestyle sprinters by performing his best when the lights are brightest.

“I’m half in and half out of the water right now,” said Jones, who continues to work under coach David Marsh for SwimMAC Carolina’s elite team. Jones makes it to some of Marsh’s practices – several other elite swimmers train in Charlotte, including 2012 multiple Olympic medalist Nick Thoman – but he misses others.

Marsh, as always, pushes Jones to do more than he wants to do in what has been one of Charlotte’s most successful athlete-coach relationships of the past decade.

At least, as Jones said, this time he hasn’t gained the 20 pounds he put on after the 2008 Olympics. Then again, as Marsh points out with a slight growl, his primary American sprinting competitors have been training harder than Jones – who won two silver medals and one gold in London – over the past six months.

As the highest-profile African-American in U.S. swimming and a multiple Olympic medalist, Jones remains in demand.

He spoke Tuesday to hundreds of employees of Liberty Mutual Insurance in Charlotte’s Ballantyne area because Liberty Mutual has just signed on as a major Olympic sponsor. He will make a cameo on close friend Ryan Lochte’s new reality show.

Jones also continues to make appearances on behalf of what has been a very successful initiative called “Make a Splash” that is designed to get more black children to learn how to swim (Jones nearly drowned as a child in a water park mishap and has long been involved in that project).

Certainly, he could retire. Michael Phelps has, and Jones is slightly older than Phelps. Jones will be 32 by the time the 2016 Olympic trials – which Greensboro has made a serious bid for and might get – roll around and determine the American team that goes to Brazil. That’s no longer terribly old in the sport of swimming, but it sure isn’t young.

“I did consider the retirement question,” Jones said. “It was one of those things where I’ve done it and do I want to do this again? I know how much it took for me to get everything together to have that near-perfect year for me in 2012. I did definitely wrestle with it. But I remember how it felt to be that fast and I want to do that again.”

Given that, why does he say he’s 95 percent sure but not 100 percent sure he will stay in Charlotte through 2016?

“The only reason I leave that five percent out there is if David Marsh would decide to leave,” Jones said. “I have no other reason to leave. I feel comfortable in Charlotte. I feel like the city has welcomed me and called me its own and I’ve been appreciative of that.”

SwimMAC Carolina remains one of the most successful swim clubs in the country, winning numerous national awards at the 18-and-under levels. It boasts a dazzling crop of teenagers who will likely be part of the next wave of American Olympians.

Jones, meanwhile, has to try and hold the fort as that wave approaches. His next big meet – assuming he qualifies for it – will be the 2013 world championships in Barcelona in July.

“There’s a lot more in the tank for Cullen,” Marsh said. “When he gets engaged, there’s nobody better.”

Fowler:; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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