Member of the 2008 U.S. Men's 4x100m Olympic Gold Medalist relay team at the Beijing Olympics; Gold Medalist in the 4x100m free relay and Silver medalist in the 50m freestyle at the 2007 World Championships
Taking back the title
Jones qualified for his first Olympics by finishing third in the 100m freestyle at Olympic Trials, earning a berth as a key member of the 4x100m free relay. The relay will be one of the most competitive races in Beijing, with the world-record-holding U.S. team not necessarily favored to win. The U.S. team is looking to take back the gold after consecutive losses (to Australia in 2000 and South Africa in 2004) that ended an undefeated streak for the U.S. at the Olympics in that race. Jones also swam the 50m free at Trials, finishing third. Jones had set the American record in prelims, but the record was broken in the final by Garrett Weber-Gale.
Top of the world
After a successful career at North Carolina State, Jones emerged as one of the world's best sprinters. Jones finished second in the 50m freestyle at the 2007 World Championships and won gold as part of the 4x100m free relay. With his sights set on Beijing, Jones could become the second African-American Olympic gold medalist; Anthony Ervin won the 50m free (in a tie with Gary Hall Jr.) in 2000.
Jones became the first African-American swimmer to hold a long course world record when the U.S. team won the 4x100m free relay at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, Canada. Swimming alongside Michael Phelps, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak, Jones helped break the record set by South Africa in Athens. Jones says he will never forget how he felt when the announcer said, "The U.S. is now under world record pace." But he doesn't have pictures to remind him -- he was so exhausted after his leg that he fell over. So while Phelps and Walker were cheering Lezak home, Jones was on the ground "seeing colors."
When Jones was five years old, his parents took him to a water park. Before he went down a big slide on an inner tube, his dad made him promise not to let go of the tube, no matter what. When he got to the bottom, the tube flipped over, leaving him trapped underwater but clinging to the tube. Jones actually lost consciousness before his father spotted him and pulled him out of the water. Lifeguards performed CPR, and Jones coughed up a pint of water before taking his first breath. But Jones had no idea at the time that his life had been in danger -- he immediately asked his parents what the next ride was.
Jones' father, Ron, was an avid basketball player and talented center, and he tried hard to persuade Cullen to take up the sport. He finally agreed but said he wouldn't be a center and tried point guard instead. But after a few years, he decided he didn't want to play basketball and focused on swimming. Even though Jones said it broke his father's heart, he was always supportive and came to all him meets. And he never gave up the desire to see his son play basketball.
Ron Jones was diagnosed with lung cancer when Cullen was 16. Ron assured his family that he would be all right, but Cullen noticed a change in him the day they found out. Ron took Cullen to every practice -- took him practically everywhere he needed to go -- and tried to make sure that Cullen and his mother would be OK when he was gone. Ron died only a few months later, in 2000, and Cullen now signs his autograph with the number 41, his father's jersey number. He also has a tattoo on his back with the sun, representing his father's strength, with "Jones 41" inside like a jersey, over a cross, representing his faith.
It wasn't until Jones signed a contract with Nike in 2006 that he began to accept the responsibility of being a role model for the black community. Jones says until that point, he hadn't paid attention to it and had focused on himself and his goals. But now, he says, he feels comfortable speaking out, encouraging more African-Americans to learn to swim, not necessarily to become Olympic athletes but to be safe. The fact that African-Americans are three times more likely to drown than any other race is a statistic that Jones wants to change.
Passing the torch
Working toward that goal, Jones holds clinics to teach children how to swim, which combines the two things he loves: swimming and teaching. Jones uses a unique teaching tool, when he talks about how he almost drowned as a kid. Most of the children, who call Jones "Aquaman," can't believe it, but Jones thinks it's an effective way to show that it can happen to anyone.
Jones' musical taste is varied, combining hip-hop with rock. Jones calls New Jersey a "melting pot" where he was exposed to both Jay-Z and Linkin Park. When the two made an album together, Jones said, "It defined me so much to see the hip-hop standpoint merge with the rock standpoint." Also listed among Jones' favorites are T.I. and Metallica.
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