By Tom Slear//Contributor | Thursday, February 27, 2020
The origin of Cullen Jones’s swimming career is well known. When he was five and couldn’t swim, he flipped over in the pool at the end of a water slide. During the subsequent confusion, he was underwater for nearly 30 seconds until lifeguards pulled him out of the pool and resuscitated him.
His mother reacted to her son’s brush with death by forcing him to learn to swim. And so, 17 years later, he became the first African American to set a world record in long course meters when he swam on America’s 400 free relay at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, though he is better known by the general public for swimming the third leg on the 400 free relay at the 2008 Olympics, the relay where teammate Jason Lezak found a seventh (or was it an eighth?) gear on the anchor leg and came from behind to stun the world by touching out the favored French and winning the gold medal, in the process shattering the world record and preserving Michael Phelps’s quest for a record eight gold medals in one Olympics.
“You Can Do Better”
Rarely mentioned, however, is what happened in between. When Jones was growing up in what he describes as a “gang-infested area” of Irvington, New Jersey, he was on a team of Latino and black swimmers.
“I remember the coach’s name – Jack Farley,” Jones says. “He was a white guy coaching in the inner city and he kept telling us, ‘You can do more. You can do better.’”
Jones improved noticeably after Farley took him to meets at Rutgers University’s pool, where many of the best swimmers in the Mid-Atlantic area competed. But after the club merged the culture changed for the worse.
A high school friend asked Jones to join him at a Jewish Community Center. Jones was the only black athlete on the team and yet, as he says, “The Jewish kids took me in like no other team I’ve been with.”
By his senior year in high school, Jones was a good college prospect, but certainly not elite. North Carolina State took a chance and he thrived. His senior year he won the 50 free at the NCAA championships. Head coach Brooks Teal saw international potential. Jones had as much pure speed as any sprinter in America, but only two would make the 2008 Olympic team in the 50 free as opposed to the six who would be on the team by means of the 100 free.
Teal suggested Jones expand his outlook. Jones initial reaction was, “Absolutely not!” Then, in 2006, he swam next to Phelps in the final of the 100 free at the Charlotte Ultra Meet. The start was delayed for two hours because of thunder. Jones was very much in his I’m-not-a-100-swimmer mindset.
“I just wanted to go home,” he recalls. Teal didn’t want to hear it. Jones swam angry and nearly beat the best swimmer in the world. Right after the race, Phelps leaned over the lane rope and said, “Now we have our fourth guy for the relay.”
What exactly Phelps meant isn’t clear, but Jones took it as swimming’s brightest star deeming Jones the fourth best 100 freestyler in America.
“That lit a fire under me,” Jones says. “I trained my face off.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The world record in 2006 and gold medal in 2008 was followed in 2009 by an American record in the 50 free and a gold medal at the World Championships, and in 2012 by a gold and two silver medals at the Olympics.
In 2016, at the age of 32, he was leading the 50 free at 35 meters and looked like a sure bet to make the Olympic team. Then…
“I thought he had it because he was such a good racer,” says Teal. “But he got third and didn’t make the team. Devastating.”
Not really. It was merely an unsatisfying end to a distinguished career of trailblazing, world records and Olympic medals.