After participating in one of the greatest swimming races in history, Cullen Jones hopes he has only begun to make an unforgettable impact.
Jones, who once starred as a college swimmer at N.C. State and now lives in Charlotte, helped set a world record for the U.S. in the 4x100 relay Sunday night (Eastern time). On Monday, with a gold medal gleaming from his neck, he talked about his ideas for using that medal and that extraordinary race as a springboard.
“I've got big plans,” Jones said.
We'll get to the inside story of that relay race in a minute. I watched Jones view the replay of the race on a big-screen TV in China on Monday, and that was cool.
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The fact that the American relay team beat the most arrogant Frenchman since Will Ferrell's NASCAR rival in “Talladega Nights” was also cool. France's Alain Bernard, who entered the event with the individual world record in the 100 and finished it with a silver medal, had told reporters before the race: “The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for.”
Instead, Jason Lezak overtook Bernard in the final five meters, in part by using a technique NASCAR fans would find familiar. The U.S. smashed the world record by nearly four seconds.
But first, listen to what Jones envisions.
“I've gone to a driving range before and hit golf balls because I saw Tiger Woods doing it on TV,” Jones said. “I want more minority kids to go to a swimming pool and try to swim because of me. I know I'm nowhere near Tiger Woods. But I want to make a difference. I want kids to say, ‘Look, a black swimmer. And he's got a gold medal!' And I want them to get in the water because of it.”
Jones, 24, has the sort of big dreams that you want an Olympian to have – something more than endorsements or TV appearances. He imagines swim meets, clinics and speeches to youth groups, all under the umbrella of what he would like to call “The Cullen Jones Diversity Tour.” Bank of America gave Jones $10,000 of seed money for it Monday.
Jones is already heavily involved with an organization called “Make a Splash,” a national child-focused water safety initiative created by the USA Swimming Foundation (MakeaSplash.org). Jones is mostly concerned not that minority children learn to swim fast, but that they learn to swim, period. A recent study sponsored by USA Swimming showed that 58 percent of black children could not swim, compared to 31 percent of whites.
“Let's say two kids are walking beside a pool and one decides it would be funny to push the other one in,” Jones said. “If the one who gets pushed in can swim, yeah, maybe it's funny. If he can't? You've got a real problem.”
Bright and beaming with personality, Jones has the gregarious nature cameras love. Although he's one of the best dressers on the U.S. Olympic swim team, he cracked his Olympic teammates up at a training camp talent show with a dead-on portrayal of TV nerd Steve Urkel.
Since meeting Jones for the first time four months ago, just after he moved to Charlotte, I knew he would be able to command part of the spotlight at the Olympics if he only had the opportunity. Now he does, as the second black U.S. swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal (Anthony Ervin was the first, in 2000).
Jones draws people. When you meet his mother, Debra Jones, you can understand why. She and her late husband spent years ferrying their only child to swim practices.
“It's worth putting the time into your child's passion,” Jones said Monday, flashing a smile almost identical to her son's. “Sometimes they don't fit the mold you imagine. Not all kids are going to grow up and be doctors.”
That Jones earned his spot on that relay at all is quite a story. He moved to Charlotte in April because he thought he had grown too distracted and comfortable with his workouts in Raleigh. “I needed to pull myself out of everything that I loved and be the new kid on the block,” Jones said.
He hooked up with Mecklenburg Aquatic Club coach David Marsh, who told Jones he had to get in better shape. They worked particularly hard on Jones' starts and turns.
“David and I really gelled,” Jones said. “I never would say a bad word about Brooks Teal (Jones' former coach at N.C. State), but David made swimming different and fun again. That's why I think I will be settling in Charlotte for good now. I've made so much progress. Charlotte is the place I already call home.”
Marsh compared the last-minute alterations in Jones' technique to “changing (Panthers quarterback) Jake Delhomme's footing for dropping back and changing his release point with four to six weeks left in the season.”
And it worked.
Jones earned his first Olympic spot six weeks ago at the U.S. Olympic Trials, but that only guaranteed him a slot in the preliminary relay. Only one swimmer would advance to the final. It turned out to be Jones, who swam the fastest leg in a sizzling preliminary as the U.S. set its first world record.
Now to the race everyone will remember. Jones' great preliminary performance put him in the 4x100 final, swimming the third leg against the favored French. NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines said before the relay that there was basically no way he could see France losing the relay.
“Before the race, I was shaking because I was so nervous,” Jones said.
Michael Phelps led off for the U.S. After the first leg, America was second to Australia. Garrett Weber-Gale then swam a tremendous second 100 to push the U.S. into first at the midway point.
Jones jumped into the water third for the U.S., and Gaines proclaimed: “He's probably the slowest swimmer” for America in the 4x100.
“Oh, thanks a lot,” Jones said sarcastically as he watched the NBC tape 10 hours later.
Gaines was correct, though. Although Jones swam a very fast time for him personally, it was the slowest of the four 100s for the U.S. When Jones finished, France held a lead of about a half-body length.
Lezak made no progress against Bernard in the first 50 meters. Said Lezak, who at 32 is the oldest member of the U.S. men's team: “When I flipped at the 50, I saw how far he was ahead. And this thought crossed my mind for a split second: ‘There's no way!'”
But Lezak quickly recharged. He said he told himself, “I don't care how bad it hurts.” Then he pulled an old NASCAR trick, getting close to the lane line and drafting off of Bernard.
In the final 20 meters, Lezak put on a last burst of speed. The NBC announcers, who had opined only seconds before the U.S. was about to win silver, suddenly changed their tone. Lezak drew shoulder-to-shoulder with Bernard in the final five meters as the crowd at the Water Cube stood and roared in disbelief.
At the wall, the underwater replay showed Lezak out-touching Bernard by a fingernail.
Phelps screamed with utter abandon after the result was posted – no one here can remember him ever celebrating like that after a win. Weber-Gale flexed his muscles and yelled.
“And I jumped so high,” Jones said, “that I almost ended up falling in the pool again.”
Jones didn't fall, though. And he hasn't yet come down.