His story is one that started over two decades ago at a New Jersey water park. After a near drowning experience at the age of five, Cullen Jones’ mother enrolled him in swimming lessons, and the rest is history—literally.
Fast forward 23 years and Jones is returning home with silver and gold medals won at the 2012 Olympic games in London. And while winning a medal is certainly a peak in his long career, Jones says one aspect of his life takes a back seat to his sport.
“Your social life takes a big dip because you have practice Saturday morning,” he says. “I still really don’t have weekends. As soon as I won in 2008 I was able to have a social life and then it’s like, ok, now you have to get ready for London.”
Preparing for London meant a grueling number of hours practicing in the pool.
“It was gut-wrenching,” he says, now able to smile at the memory. “Blood, sweat and tears every single day.”
Growing up in Irvington, New Jersey, Jones perfected his craft by swimming with school and competitive teams, but calls himself a “late bloomer” as he didn’t consider trying out for the Olympics until college.
“The Olympics were never something I really associated myself with because I just never thought that was possible, “ he says. “I just liked [swimming].”
Now, Jones is not only an experienced Olympic athlete, he’s a role model. He’s teamed up with two organizations to promote the Make A Splash initiative, which pushes the importance of knowing how to swim. Far too many Black children (some seven out of 10) don’t now how to swim, he says.
“I want kids to [look up] to me,” he says. “I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my culture. That’s why I started working with [the] U.S.A. Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 with Make A Splash.”
Although teaching children how to swim, carrying Olympic medals through airport security (which garner lots of TSA attention,) and traveling the world is pretty cool, to say the least, Jones says the best thing about being an Olympian is meeting all of his fans and onlookers, including Oprah Winfrey.
Says Cullen: “They’re just as excited to meet me as I am to meet them, which blows my mind half the time.”
TEN QUESTIONS WITH CULLEN JONES
If you had an autobiography, what would be the title? "Dare to Be Different"
Your favorite warm-up song? "No Church in the Wild" by Kanye West and Jay-Z.
Any secret nicknames that no one would expect? There’s a family name and I hate it: "Cully." I don’t like it. The younger cousins still call me that!
If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be? My immediate confidence. I think that when I go into something that I’m not necessarily comfortable with, I’m not that confident. I tend to grow my confidence. Like doing 'the Dougie' on 106 and Park!
3 things you want to do before you’re 30? Sky dive, start my own jean line and buy an Aston Martin.
If your life was a movie, who would you want cast as you? Usher.
Where’d you take your first date? My first date was when I was 11 and I went with my parents and we went to Boston Market. I mean I was 11, so she was impressed.
Your biggest celeb crush? Zoe Saldana.
Do you like the good girls or the bad girls? Lady in the street…
-Additonal reporting by Melanie Martin