Cullen Jones came up out of the water ready to celebrate.
Jones knew he had out-touched the two men he believed were his primary competition in the Olympic 50-meter freestyle final. He looked at the scoreboard, ready to raise his arm and pump his fist.
“I thought I was in the lead,” Jones said. “I really did. I thought I had it. And when I hit the wall I was like, “Ooooh!! Oh…. No.”
There wasn’t a “1” next to his name. There was a “2.” Jones had beaten his biggest rivals but had still finished second to earn silver, his first individual medal.
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All of the big guns had been upset by an unheralded Frenchman named Florent Manadou, who sped to a startling gold medal from an outside lane.
The race favorite – Brazil’s Cesar Cielo, who had not lost a 50 freestyle at a major international competition in four years – finished third. The other swimmer Jones was really worried about – American teammate Anthony Ervin – finished fifth.
It took Jones a while to process all this, which is why the former N.C. State star and current Charlotte resident didn’t look thrilled when the TV cameras trained on him in the minutes following the race.
But later, Jones’ smile was back. He had not even made the top 16 of this race a year ago at the world championships, and now he had improved to No. 2.
“I gave 100 percent, so I’m happy,” Jones said. “The time wasn’t too bad and I’m thankful that I got second. I was dreaming of gold and I really wanted to get first, but it wasn’t in the cards this time. I’ll have to work with silver. And that’s enough motivation for another four years, I think.”
Manadou, 21, became the second Frenchman to yank a gold medal from Jones’ grasp in these Olympics and hand him a silver. In the 4-by-100 freestyle, Jones had given a slight lead to anchor Ryan Lochte going into the final leg, but Lochte was then chased down by France’s Yannick Agnel for first place.
Jones quite possibly will get that elusive gold medal Saturday night, however. He swam a preliminary leg Friday on the U.S. 4-by-100 medley relay team that is strongly favored to win. And even though he won’t swim in the final, he qualifies for whatever medal the relay squad gets.
For now, Jones has two silver medals from these Olympics and a gold from a 2008 Olympic relay – quite a haul for a swimmer who almost drowned as a child in a water park accident. His profile will only increase as America’s most successful African-American swimmer, which will help his efforts to get more minority children to learn how to swim and thus decrease drowning.
Jones, 28, is actually a bit older than the retiring Michael Phelps. But Jones all but committed to swimming through the 2016 Olympics in Brazil after Friday’s race, saying that it was “looking good.”
Jones has lived in Charlotte since 2008. He moved that year from Raleigh – where he still owns a condo – to join SwimMAC Carolina’s elite team and be coached by David Marsh. Jones said it was “open to debate” whether he will stay in Charlotte through 2016, however.
“For all of us, once we’re in one place for too long, things start to get stale,” said Jones, who grew up in New Jersey. “I love Charlotte. I have a great network of friends in Charlotte. But swimming-wise, to have another coach kind of take a look at me….” He trailed off then, and continued: “But it would be really hard to leave, even for just a certain amount of time.”
Obviously, Jones has some decisions to make that are going to take a lot longer than the sub-22 seconds the race took Friday night.
Manadou is the younger brother of Laure Manadou, who won a swimming gold medal for France in 2004. She came out of the stands to congratulate him right after the race, hugging him fiercely.
Her younger brother was an Olympic rookie who came into the race as a top-10 swimmer in the 50, but not a top-five swimmer. Manadou said his goal for the race was simply to make the eight-man final, which he had done with the sixth-fastest qualifying time.
Manadou was swimming far outside in lane 7. Jones, Cielo and Ervin commandeered the three middle lanes by virtue of having the three fastest times in the semifinals.
Jones and Manadou had never raced before – had never even spoken before, really. Said Jones, who seems to know practically everybody in the sport: “He wasn’t on my radar at all.”
“I haven’t met many other competitors,” Manadou said through an interpreter. “It was perhaps something for me that was a strength, that I didn’t know too many.”
Jones, in lane 5, got off to a very fast start. As is his custom, he took one breath late in the race over his right shoulder, where he could see that he was barely ahead of Cielo in lane 4.
“Go, go, go!” Jones said he thought to himself.
And he went. His time of 21.54 was exactly what he swam in the semifinal – his fastest time without wearing one of the high-tech bodysuits that are now banned from the sport.
But in a race where improvement often comes in hundredths of a second, Manadou bested his qualifying time by nearly a half-second to win in 21.34 seconds.
“I changed my stroke a month ago and it paid off,” Manadou said. “There were three favorites – the two Americans and Cesar Cielo. I was hoping to be on the podium, so I had to do something.”
Cielo was third in 21.59 seconds and obviously upset. He cried during the medalists’ “victory lap” around the pool and did not attend the news conference afterwards.
Jones, however, had returned to his normal high spirits by the end of the race. He threw the flowers that all the medal-winners get to his mother, Debra, who was in the stands and had helped him out with a major pep talk in 2011 when his career was floundering.
But Jones still couldn’t shake the bittersweet feeling that while he had won something big Friday, he had lost something, too.
“I had dreamed of doing this with you guys,” Jones said as he was being interviewed by a small knot of reporters. He touched the silver medal as he spoke. “But in the dream, I had a gold medal around my neck instead of a silver.”