Even with all his swimming accomplishments – U.S., World and Olympic champion, American record holder, national speaker, sports ambassador, etc. – one of the most life-affirming moments in Cullen Jones’ life came following an event in which he didn’t even participate.
It was the women’s 100 freestyle final at the 2016 Rio Olympics. American Simone Manuel swam to gold – becoming the first U.S. woman to win the event in more than 30 years and the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal.
In her post-race interview, she thanked God, and then proceeded to surprise Jones, who was watching intently and even found himself tearing up and jumping up and down in delight after she touched first, with her next acknowledgement.
“She said she wanted to thank me, and Maritza (Correia McClendon) and Anthony (Ervin) and all of the African-American swimmers who came before her and were role models for her,” he said. “I was so humbled and honored with her words.
“You hope you make an impact like that as one of the first and most visibly successful African-American swimmers, but until I heard it right there on TV, it hadn’t really sunken in. I was floored in a good way.”
Jones, one of the best American freestyle sprinters over the past 10-plus years, was absent from those Olympics after medaling in 2008 and 2012.
At Olympic Trials, he came within a fingertip of making his third team, just missing the top two in the 50 freestyle to have to watch the Games from home. Four years earlier in London, he returned home with a silver medal in the 50 as well as gold in the 400 medley relay and silver in the 400 free relay.
Following 2016 Trials, Jones said he experienced a dark time after coming so close to joining his friends and teammates in Brazil.
He’d gone to Omaha never imagining that he wouldn’t be on his third Olympic Team. So, when it didn’t happen, he second-guessed himself, revisited the race finish in his head and experienced a level of disappointment foreign to him.
“My results at Trials crushed me,” said Jones, who moved back to Raleigh last year to finish his degree in English from North Carolina State, where he was an All-American swimmer. “I was so used to making teams, that when I didn’t make the 2016 team, it was a severe reality check for me.
“I asked myself, ‘Was I ready?’ in Omaha, and the answer was yes. I watched my race (from Trials) and realized I was ahead most of the race (50 free); I just had a bad finish.”
What Jones also said he realized months after Trials was that he swam as fast as he did on talent and experience, but he could have put more time in during the months leading up to the meet to be better prepared.
He withdrew from swimming and most of the world – choosing to stay home a lot and not wanting to do anything.
“I talked to a sports psychologist, and he got me thinking would Lebron (James) retire at 32, and the answer was no,” Jones said. “At that moment, I had to get honest with myself and be realistic about what I wanted from swimming. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I knew deep down I wasn’t ready to leave yet.”
Then, he spoke with Chuck Wielgus later that year at Golden Goggles, and he gave him some advice he took to heart.
“He told me don’t stop if I still loved swimming and believed I could swim faster,” Jones said. “I didn’t have an answer for him at first, but I knew I still loved the sport and racing, and I still wanted to compete. So, I did.”
A couple of days later, Jones emailed his college coach at NC State about coming back to train with Wolfpack Elite and live in Raleigh while making good on the promise he made to his mom that he would return to school and finish his degree. He’ll graduate in May.
“I knew if I was going to go back into swimming and school, I wanted to do it right,” he said. “I spoke with (his coach) David (Marsh) when I was training in Charlotte, and he gave me his blessing to make the change and chase my dreams.”
After skipping competition last summer at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming Championships (he was there making an appearance but didn’t compete), Jones, who said he’s enjoying and benefiting from his change in coaching and training, is preparing for a shot at the 2018 Pan Pacific and 2019 World Championship teams that will be determined at Nationals this summer.
He recognizes the importance of his swims this summer as he looks forward to the 2020 Olympics – and what could most likely be his last shot at making a third Olympic team.
He plans to compete at TYR Pro Swim Series events in Mesa, Indianapolis and most likely Santa Clara to prepare – “there’s no substitute for meet racing” – for Philips 66 Nationals since he hasn’t really competed outside of practice in a while.
And despite whatever happens in the pool over the next couple of seasons – whether he makes an international team or not – Jones said he plans to continue his national speaking engagements and teaching swimming to underserved children across the country via Make a Splash.
As someone who’s always been interested in fashion, he’s also interested in starting his own clothing line or working with a major designer label.
Make a Splash and the clinics he gives are something he’s incredibly proud of, knowing he’s impacted – and possibly helped save – the lives of millions of children over the past decade.
“It’s going to be a battle at Nationals with Nathan (Adrian) there and with what Caeleb has done the past couple of years, and then Michael Andrew is really coming on and will be tough, so I know it’s going to be a challenge,” said Jones, who will be 34 next week and 36 at the next Olympic Trials. “But I’ve always loved a challenge. I thrive on it.
“Right now, I’m going for 2020, and I’m holding myself to that. But I will use the next couple of years gauging myself, and if I’m not still swimming fast or faster and think I can accomplish something at Trials, I’ll have to decide then if I still want to continue. I know I have a lot of speed left in the tank, and this year, I’m staying fit and pushing myself to find it.”
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