When American swimmer Cullen Jones won a gold medal Monday in the thrilling 4x100 meter freestyle relay in Beijing, he became only the second U.S. Olympic swimming champion of African-American descent (Anthony Ervin was the first, in 2000). He hopes his success will be a big boost in his personal campaign to promote diversity in the sport and help minorities learn how to swim. VOA Sports Editor Parke Brewer has the story from Beijing.
Cullen Jones swam the third leg for the world record record-breaking U.S. 4x100 relay team (3:08.24) in a win that included his more well-known teammate Michael Phelps.
It was likely obvious to television viewers both in the United States and around the world, that Jones is one of the rare athletes of color in the sport.
Jones' initial interest was gymnastics
The 24-year-old Jones stands 1.96-meter tall. As a child, he started out in gymnastics. But when his coach looked at how tall his parents were, he told them Cullen would likely do better in another sport.
Cullen's mother, Debra, says she was not surprised her son ended up as a swimmer.
"I kind of knew that Cullen was going to be a water baby. He was a kid that I could leave in the [bath] tub and he would sit there for hours," he said. "And he would cry when I would take him out of the tub."
Mom says swimming came naturally
Cullen Jones was born and raised around New York City. He started swimming at age eight. He became more competitive through the years, and he credits his parents for giving him inspiration and getting him to his early morning swim practices.
"I had practice in New York and we were living in New Jersey an hour away, and I'd have 5:30 in the morning practice. We'd get up really, really early and my parents would sit in the car and wait for me to finish practice. And, my [swimming] friends always thought my parents were snipers [laughs] and were kind of worried, but that's just the dedication my parents had," Jones said.
Cullen's father died of lung cancer in 2000, and was not able to witness his son's noteworthy achievements through the recent years.
Giving back to swimming community is important to Jones
Cullen Jones is already involved in a USA Swimming organization called "Make a Splash," which is dedicated to promoting water safety. He now hopes to use his Olympic success to launch what he calls "The Cullen Jones Diversity Tour." He wants to help educate children, especially minorities, about the importance of learning to swim, not necessarily for speed, but as an important survival skill. He is aware of the recent study sponsored by USA Swimming that showed that 58 percent of black children could not swim, compared to 31 percent of whites.
Black people don't swim? forget about it!
Jones says he would like to have an impact on swimming like world top-rated golfer Tiger Woods has had on his sport.
"I know that I've seen Tiger, and I've gone to a driving range and hit a few balls because I've seen Tiger," continued Jones. "And, I'm hoping that with this performance, just the exposure and people seeing that, you know what, or having a kid sit back and say, "Wow! Look, there's a black swimmer. That's amazing! Look what he's doing! He's got a gold medal! That would be cool to do!'"
Cullen Jones says the stigma that "black people don't swim" should now be over.