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Swimmer hopes historic win will change sport

Cullen Jones – who went from a near-drowning in childhood to Monday's record-breaking gold medal in the men's 400 meter freestyle relay – is on a mission to get minority youths into the pool.
/ Source: TODAY

Swimmer Cullen Jones is still reeling from winning Olympic gold in a relay that is already being called one of the most exciting races in sports history. And now he is just starting to digest the longer-reaching impact his victory could have on a sport that is lacking in diversity.

“I was told, ‘You could change the face of swimming by getting more African-Americans into swimming,’ ” Jones, 24, said. “At first I was like, ‘Really, me?’ I never got into it thinking I could do something like that, you never do. I just liked to swim.”

But years of training have led Jones to the top of the Olympic podium — and he is ready to use his new position in the public spotlight to spread his love for swimming to minority youths when he returns home to the States.

Jones — together with teammates Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and anchor Jason Lezak — set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle relay on Monday at the Beijing Games. Jones is just the third African-American swimmer to medal in an Olympic Games, and today, as the third leg of the relay that anchor Jason Lezak brought home in a dramatic finish, he became just the second to win gold.

Jones was literally frozen to the ladder on the side of the pool as Lezak, 32, made up a full body length in the final leg to touch out the French by eight one-hundredths of a second and set a new world record, 3:08.24. Australia took third place.

NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines, who prior to the race predicted the USA did not have the speed to beat the French, told Matt Lauer, “I’ve never seen a more amazing swim race in the history of my life.”

“Everyone is just in awe of Jason right now,” Jones said. “He’s always been the closer, he’s always been that guy who can get his hand on the wall, but everyone’s just jaws on the floor.”

The win also kept alive Michael Phelps’ dream of winning eight gold medals at these games. Surprisingly, however, Jones said the relay team did not carry the burden of Phelps’ storyline into the event.

“One thing that I do love about Michael —  and I love about Team USA — is Michael's goals don’t become everyone else's goal,” Jones said. “We’re a team, we’re one unit ... Jason said it the best: This is a 400 freestyle. This is not a 4 by 100, this is a 400. Everyone swims, and we are one unit.”

“[Lezak has] always been kind of like the dad of the team,” Jones added, while describing himself as the “snot-nosed punk that sits back and causes trouble.”

That punk is now in a position to effect positive change, not trouble.

Hours after his win, Bank of America announced they are going to sponsor his Cullen Jones Tour, a series of clinics and swim meets he is organizing in order to promote more children from minority backgrounds to get in the pool.

“I was amazed,” Jones said. “The fact that they’re willing to put forth money to help me with something that I see as being a need in my life and wanting to try to help, just opens up another chapter of us working together to get more kids into swimming.”

Jones is all too aware of the importance of knowing how to swim, having almost drowned at an amusement park as a child. That brush with death directly resulted in his parents’ getting him into swimming. Now, he is hoping to impart the lessons he learned on his journey to the children who come through his tour.

“I'm just thankful,” Jones said. “Some people say that relay is going to be one of the best sports moments ever, and just to be a part of that — not only is it going to help my movement of diversity — it's just an honor.”