He is 32 now, and most inside the swimming world figure that Cullen Jones is well past his swimming prime.
The former N.C. State star has trained in Charlotte under SwimMAC Carolina coach David Marsh since 2008. In those eight years, Jones has been a supernova – making two U.S. Olympic teams and winning four Olympic medals (two gold, two silver).
Nevertheless, in the “What have you done for me lately?” world of the U.S. swim trials in Omaha, Neb., Jones is considered an outsider looking in during this Olympic cycle.
“I think I’m going to shock some people again,” Jones said. “That’s the goal. They’re not expecting me – again.”
Jones will begin his Olympic trials Wednesday in the first heats of the 100 freestyle. He will need to finish among the top six to make at least the 400 relay team; he is seeded 21st.
On Friday, he will start swimming in his best event – the 50 freestyle. He will need to finish among the top two to make it to Rio in that one. An Olympic silver medalist in the event in 2012, this time Jones is only seeded No. 5 in the United States.
Of the talk that he peaked in 2012 and now is simply not as good as he was – talk that has been fueled in large part by inconsistent meet results in the run-up to Omaha – Jones said: “Oh, of course, I hear that all the time. I don’t feel that’s the case. I think a lot of the meets I’ve gone to I’ve been in heavy workload. … I can’t rebound in three days anymore and swim fast. … I’m not a 22-year-old anymore.”
Yet Jones is well-known for his ability to perform beautifully when the moment is the biggest.
“It has always been Cullen’s strength to go big when the lights are brightest,” Marsh said.
So a familiar pattern has emerged over the past few months in Jones’ training, Marsh said.
“I would have said a few months ago that I’m very doubtful in terms of him being able to bring out his best this time around,” Marsh said. “But – and this is classic for Cullen – he went into full prep mode over the last three months. He’s been living it every day and doing some things in practice that are incredible.”
‘What’s the next thing?’
It is not inconceivable Jones will make his third Olympic team at age 32. Anthony Ervin, who is 35 and also an Olympic gold medalist, now is his training partner at SwimMAC and is swimming as well or better than Jones. “I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from Tony,” Jones said.
Jones has been a rarity in his sport in numerous ways – a successful African-American in a sport dominated by whites and a swimmer who actually makes good money because of a preponderance of endorsements. His work with the Make A Splash – a national child-focused water safety initiative created by the USA Swimming Foundation – also has been pioneering. Jones personalizes each of his appearances for that group with the story of how he nearly drowned in a Pennsylvania water park at age 7, which prompted his parents to get him into swim lessons.
Swimming has been very good to Jones, but he knows it cannot last forever. He is engaged to be married in May 2017 and has long had an interest in men’s fashion, which might be something he wants to pursue eventually.
“I love this sport,” Jones said. “But I do have my days – and I’ve had a lot more of them this time around than I did before London (and the 2012 Olympics) – of me saying, ‘What’s the next thing I’m going to do with my life?’ My mind is definitely is on the next step, whether it be swimming or not.”
Then Jones smiled.
“And I know a lot of people will ask that question again once I shock a lot of people in Omaha,” he said.
Tearful and hopeful in Omaha
Confident and gregarious, Jones has been the one constant in Marsh’s ever-changing Team Elite over the past eight years. Marsh was the biggest key, but Jones helped recruit to Charlotte an even bigger star in swimming’s firmament – his best friend Ryan Lochte.
About 20 or so Team Elite members gathered at Marsh’s house one morning this month just to relax on the eve of Olympic trials. Marsh made them breakfast and then the swimmers talked about how quickly the time had passed.
“We were all kind of in tears because we knew that would be the last time this team is going to be exactly like this,” Jones said.
Jones was tearful and hopeful at the same time – knowing his career is in its twilight, but not wanting the light to fade away just yet. He wants one more big summer in Brazil. But to get that, he has to come up big one more time in Omaha.