Cullen Jones won Olympic gold and silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games, and came very close to making the U.S. Olympic team again. Although he didn’t qualify for Rio, he’s singing the praises of Simone Manuel, who set a record and won gold in the women’s 100 meter freestlyle on Thursday. Jones spoke with EBONY.com about how proud he is of Manuel’s achievement, African Americans and swimming in general, and the possibility of his return to the water.
EBONY.com: Simone Manuel gave you a specific shout out yesterday as she won the gold medal in the women’s 100m freestyle. What were your feelings when you heard this?
Cullen Jones: I’m always humbled and surprised when someone is successful and is able to say your name and give you some kind of props. It was very cool, I wasn’t exactly expecting it but I’m thankful. Simone has been kind of like a little sister to me and I’ve watched her progress throughout the years. I’ve said it once before, and I’ll say it again: We’re just seeing the beginning of Simone Manuel.
I think that she is definitely going to be a star, she’s already proven that. She’s immortal at this point, she’s one of the few people that’s been able to get a gold medal in the individual event, let alone her being a Black female. It only makes it event better.
EBONY.com: So does this mean she’s now stepped into a leadership role when it comes to African Americans and aquatic sports like swimming?
CJ: That is going to be up to her. It’s something that I took very seriously growing up. My parents raised me in the Baptist faith and I was kind of groomed to know to give back immediately. But it’s not on everyone’s heart, so I think it’s gonna be up to her to make that decision. But knowing her, and knowing her family and how she’s been growing up, I’m sure she will.
She’s already shown that she’s a leader and this is her first true Olympics, even though she’s gone to meets that are very, very similar and very close and run the same way, she’s done enough. She’s gotten the gold medal at the highest level. So I think that now it is her decision to become a leader or not. But I know she will (laughs).
EBONY.com: But for quite some time, you’ve been the face of Black swimming, not to put you on the spot. What’s been the disconnect between our community and the sport, or even the recreation?
CJ: I just think it’s exposure. I always compare it to the Jewish faith. In the Jewish faith, children are taught to walk, to talk, to read, and of course to swim, it’s called a life skill. Its something in the Black community that we don’t see necessarily as a life skill. Many times it’s because parents have had a negative experience around the water and they transplant their own fears onto their children.
I was very, very similar in this. My dad kind of knew how to swim, my mom really didn’t and I almost drowned at the age of five. My mom went against the grain and got me into swim lessons. Most parents you see – in all the work I’ve done with Make A Splash – most parents shield their children away at that point, instead of giving them the lessons to conquer that fear or to be better than them. They try to protect their child of course, naturally, and they try to pull them away from it. My mom went against the grain and said, I don’t know how to swim, but I’m not gonna let my fear in me not knowing how to swim hinder my child. So she got me into swim lessons.
EBONY.com: There’s actually been a history of discrimination when it comes to African Americans and pools going back maybe a century. Do you think that’s put us in a position where we’ve avoided aquatics?
CJ: I think that was a very big start and I think that is a very big deterrent as to why people of color shy away from the water. But I can tell you right now, in 2016, we have access. We can get to a pool. A lot of times, like I said, the parents have had negative experiences and then they transplant that onto their children.
They don’t know how to swim and they feel helpless at that point because they have something that they don’t know how to do, so they try to shield their child away.
I think that throwing bleach and acid in while African-Americans were in the pool – you know that iconic picture – I think that is a deterrent, obviously for the parents or the grandparents. But for 2016, it’s exposure, the lack of exposure and it’s the lack of people understanding that this is a life skill.
Your child loves to be near the water, so you need to give them the life skill of learning how to swim.
EBONY.com: You’ve been very active with the USA Swimming Foundation in their Make A Splash initiative – in fact you wrote an op-ed in EBONY.com about it recently. Is that bringing more people of color to the pools this summer?
CJ: When you look at African Americans in sports, there’s always a trailblazer. There’s somebody out there that has done it and people can follow suit. When Tiger Woods was killing it, I went out and bought clubs. Serena’s killing it when it comes to tennis, I’ve seen people go out and buy rackets to play. Simone Manuel is now on that level. She has now created history. She’s the first African-American woman – or woman of color – to get an individual gold medal in the U.S. (in swimming). She’s a legend at this point. No matter what happens later, she has done something that no one else has done.
And I encourage and I press our young women to push on to continue. She has already opened the door. She has lit the path. Now it’s all of our jobs to follow that.
EBONY.com: One more question: Are we going to see you get back in the water?
CJ: (Laughs) Aww come on, man. You know what? I’ve got some die hard fans out there that don’t want me to stop. I see it on Instagram, I see it on Twitter. I’m still kind of mulling it over in my mind. My mom, my fiancée, all of my friends, they keep telling me to keep going.
I was so close, I almost made it. I was third (in qualifying for the Olympics) and I feel like if you would have rolled those dice again, I would have been on the team.
I feel good, if I was gonna do it, it would just be the 50 meter freestyle. I have not fully retired, I’m just still working it out in my mind whether I want to continue or not.
But I love this sport so much and I think it’s possible that I might be back. I’ve got a lot of support from family and fans and friends, so maybe.
To learn more about the Make A Splash initiative and the USA Swimming foundation, visit USASwimmingFoundation.org