What better way to draw attention to a lifesaving swim program than promoting it from the top of the Empire State Building? That’s exactly where EBONY.com found Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, an ambassador of the USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash Initiative. The Bronx native began working with the organization after learning the staggering water safety statistics among African-American children: 70 percent do not know how to swim.
Jones speaks with EBONY.com about Make a Splash, and what it’s like to be the only Black guy in the Olympic pool.
EBONY: What has your experience been so far with the Make a Splash Foundation?
Cullen Jones: It’s been amazing. I’ve been working with them the past five years, and we’ve seen so many kids learn how to swim. We’ve reached almost two million kids now. This year we’re kicking it off here in New York. It’s good to be home, and get people excited about learning to swim and save some lives. So many kids in the African-American community are terrified of the water because their parents have been scared and they just transplanted that onto their kids, so we’re trying to break that. They said we couldn’t golf or play tennis, and they said we couldn’t swim, but yes we can.
EBONY: What about swimming made you want to do it competitively, and what was the reception like in your family?
CJ: During my first introduction to the sport at age 5, I almost drowned. My mom got me into swim lessons, and at the age of 8, I saw my first swim meet and was like, “Wow, this is really cool!” I got really competitive. And then the first day, I went to practice and I was getting spanked. The other kids were swimming so much faster than me. I played basketball, which came easy to me at a young age. But I started loving the sport of swimming. My parents were just excited that I was active.
At 13, I told my dad I was going to start swimming and that I would have to give up basketball. It kind of crushed his dreams because he wanted me to play for the Knicks one day. My mom was completely supportive; she always enjoyed going to my meets. I think my dad thought it was a phase, but after that he was gung-ho about swimming. He said, “If you’re going to give up basketball for this, you’ve got to swim!”
EBONY: I’ve read that when you were younger, parents of your competitors would say you were better off playing basketball. Do you still get comments about being Black in a predominantly White sport?
CJ: I think times have changed a little bit. I think the world is more of a melting pot at this point, and that people see me as an American. Everyone likes to put the label that I’m African-American, but I think more people see now that, because I’m now working with the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash, there’s not much you can really say to hurt me. I do feel for a lot of kids though. I get text messages, emails, Facebook messages, tweets, saying, “I’m the only Black swimmer on my team.” I understand that. I try to mentor as much as I possibly can. But I think we’re becoming more accepting than when I was growing up.
EBONY: Who did you look up to in terms of swimmers when you were younger?
CJ: I didn’t have anyone that looked like me to look up to, so my dad showed me Michael Jordan. I remember Gatorade had just made that commercial about him having a 102 fever and playing through it. After that, it was like, “I wanna get sick so I can show I’m an athlete!” That was what I felt an athlete was, and I try every day to live up to that.
EBONY: Do you feel pressure because you’re the primary athlete these young Black swimmers look up to?
CJ: I’m definitely the highest profile African-American swimmer, and that does have its own pressures. When I’m racing, I don’t think about that. But when I take my cap off and stand in front of my fans, I try to be a role model and tell my fans that swimming, especially for African-Americans, is something we can do. If you don’t want to fill my shoes, at least learn to swim, because 70 percent of African-Americans don’t know how. There is a cure for drowning: it’s swim lessons.
EBONY: What kind of advice do you give to the kids who write to you about feeling isolated and facing stereotypes?
CJ: The number one thing I always tell them is to never give up. If you have a dream, continue, no matter what it is. My parents always had me going after goals, so I always had something to focus on, to keep me motivated. I tell all of the kids: don’t get discouraged. It always gets better.
EBONY: What’s your relationship like with Lia Neal, the African-American swimmer who made her Olympic debut in London? Has she reached out to you at all for support, or vice versa?
CJ: She’s like my little sister. We definitely keep in touch, both being from New York. I was born in the Bronx; she’s from Brooklyn. Whenever I’m up here, I train with her team and train with her. There is a silent head nod; we know. But at the same time, we respect our position. Honestly, I am so excited to see her do as well as she’s doing. In 2016, I’m going to be hanging up my goggles and passing the torch to her. And there’s not a better ambassador than her. She’s going to hold that and run for another eight years.