Sometimes, a traumatic experience can have a positive impact. It can motivate individuals to new heights, revealing hidden talents and inspiring others along the way. Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones is one of these people. His road to Rio began with a near-fatal drowning.
From Trauma to Competition
Born Cullen Andrew Jones on February 29, 1984, he moved with his family from the Bronx to Irvington, N.J., during his elementary school years.
When he was five, his parents treated Cullen to a day at the water park. After a fun-filled day, he followed his father onto the park’s largest ride. While the adults and bigger kids coasted easily into the shallow end, Cullen’s light weight allowed his inner tube to flip at the bottom of the slide.
The water swallowed Jones for a full 30 seconds! With no swimming experience, he was terrified. Thankfully, a lifeguard rescued him from the water and successfully performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
After such an experience, many children would have developed a deep fear of the water; Jones started swimming lessons at the local YMCA. At eight years old, he swam in his first meet and discovered that he loved competing.
Jones then joined several different swimming clubs; many times, he was the only African-American on the team. By age 11, he was hooked on swimming.
Unlike some other competitive swimmers, his talent didn’t come naturally. Cullen had to invest sweat equity to excel, allowing his losses and failures to fuel his passion. Until his junior year in high school, he didn’t even feel that swimming in college was a possibility.
From NC State to Olympic Gold
Jones swam for North Carolina State University, where he refined his skills. As a senior, he was a nationally ranked swimmer and won the NCAA Division I Championship with his performance in the 50-yard freestyle.
With Nike as a sponsor, he became a professional swimmer in 2006. His amazing performance at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships contributed to his winning the 2006 Golden Goggles award for Breakout Performer of the Year.
When Coach Dave Marsh moved from Auburn University to SwimMAC Carolina in 2007, Cullen was among the first swimmers to follow him. He still swims on SwimMAC’s Team Elite, alongside such swimming luminaries as Ryan Lochte, Madison Kennedy, Tyler Clary, and Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace.
Under Coach Marsh, Jones qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He and his relay team won the 4x100-meter freestyle, making him only the second African-American in history to earn a gold medal in the sport.
In 2012, he added more Olympic medals to his collection: silver in the 50-meter freestyle, another in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, and gold in the 4x100 meter medley relay. He has said that treating an Olympic race like any other meet helped him to relax and swim his best.
‘Making a Splash’ for Diversity
Jones has never forgotten that his career and passion were inspired by a near-drowning incident. He continues to be active in promoting swimming lessons and water safety in minority and urban communities. In 2009, he teamed up with the USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 to create the Make a Splash initiative.
Through Make a Splash, Cullen spreads awareness about the preventable drowning statistics among minorities, which can be up to three times that of white communities. He also promotes low-cost swimming lessons and, through the Make a Splash Tour, has even given lessons to children himself.
Historically, African-Americans have been subject to discrimination and racist theories that kept them out of public pools. Cullen and Make a Splash are working systematically to help change those beliefs and attitudes.
The Road to Rio
This year, Cullen was inducted into the North Carolina Swimming Hall of Fame. In preparation for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, he swims up to six hours a day! Including weight training, he trains roughly 40 hours per week with his eye on another gold medal at age 32.
Regardless of the outcomes in Rio, Cullen knows that his legacy is more than his medal count. He’s making a difference at preventing drowning and encouraging more people of color to enjoy – and even excel at – swimming.