By Jeff Commings//Contributor | Friday, February 24, 2017
This time last year, Cullen Jones’ mind was fixated on Rio de Janeiro and doing everything he could to earn a trip to his third Olympic Games. These days, his focus has turned to the British Isles and the issues facing Ireland’s fight to remain independent from Great Britain.
Just before a recent interview earlier this month, the 32-year-old Jones was dissecting portions of a play by the late Irish playwright Brian Friel for a paper he was writing for one of his classes at North Carolina State University. The former NCAA champion for the Wolfpack has returned to Raleigh not only to finish his studies and earn a bachelor’s degree in English, but to train for a shot at the 2020 Olympics after falling short of a spot on last year’s team.
Getting his degree and getting on the Olympic team had equal priority for Jones when he decided last fall to stay in the sport.
“I did a lot of soul searching after just missing the Olympic team,” Jones said. “It was hard. I felt like I had more in the tank. I had to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself if I wanted to make that commitment. Ever since then, I haven’t looked back.”
The training atmosphere is decidedly different for Jones, who had spent the past two Olympic cycles with David Marsh and his elite team at SwimMAC Carolina. Jones is at least 10 years older than the college athletes he swims with daily, and the workload has changed dramatically – but in a good way.
“I take it one day at a time,” he said. “I don’t feel a day over 21, and I’m going to treat it as such.”
When Jones actually was 21 years old, he was making a name for himself as the 2006 Pan Pacific champion in the 50 freestyle and part of the 400 free relay that broke the world record at that meet. That world record marked the first time an African-American swimmer had set a world record, making him as newsworthy at the time as Michael Phelps. His status as one of swimming’s most revered athletes was cemented at the 2008 Olympics as a member of “The Relay.” When he won gold as part of the 400-meter freestyle relay in Beijing, he inspired a generation of minorities to dream big.At the time, he didn’t know how much of an impression he had made on young swimmers. It took a revelatory conversation with a friend and a call from USA Swimming for Jones to realize his place in history, and how he could help to do more. In the past eight years as a USA Swimming Foundation Ambassador, and with his work on USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash initiative, he has seen firsthand how he has not only helped lower the drowning rate among minorities, but also expose children to swimming.
“Everything happens for a reason, and I think getting involved with Make-A-Splash came at the right time,” Jones said.
Though he’s been busy with his studies and acclimating to training with coaches Braden Holloway and Todd DeSorbo at N.C. State, Jones still makes time to travel the country for clinics. His most recent one was in Austin, Texas, during the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. It allowed Jones to continue to present swimming to those who might not otherwise know of the benefits the sport can bring. His schedule has made him busier than ever, and Jones said he’s had to turn down some of the many requests he’s received lately to host clinics. He said he knows how much good comes from just one clinic, which is why he said he wants to do as many as he can while balancing his studies and swimming.
As much as his primary job is to teach the kids how to swim at clinics, Jones said he’s always learning something about himself at each one.
“These kids inspire me,” he said. “When they do something they didn’t think they could do, it reminds me that (when I broke a world record), I was the same way. It helps me get back to basics.”
It’s also given him some perspective on how instrumental he has been to not only motivate the current generation of competitive swimmers, but to inspire beginners to love the sport.
“I grew up in a Baptist culture, and my mom was always telling me that I had to give back to my community and this was my way of doing it,” Jones said. “I understand it more now as I get older and hear more from kids saying how much they look up to me.”