By John Lohn
IRVINE, California, August 8. HE stands out in a crowd – at least in the swimming world. Not just because he’s one of the fastest freestylers on the planet, a distinction he earned with sensational showings in the 50 and 100 events at the United States National Championships. In part, Cullen Jones stands out because he’s an anomaly, an African-American in a white-dominated sport.
Competing at last week’s Nationals at the William Woollett Aquatic Center, Jones followed a victory in the 50 freestyle with a third-place performance in the 100 free. The combination has vaulted Jones up the freestyle ranks and has him steamrolling into the Pan Pacific Championships, to be held in Victoria, British Columbia later this month. Jones placed behind Jason Lezak and Neil Walker in the 100 free, but he’s just now getting a feel for the event and went a career-best 49.17 in the prelims.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Jones said of the 100 free. “To go 49 twice after never having broken 50 seconds is a step in the right direction.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Jones was prodded by his father to play basketball, but his heart and speed in the water kept Jones connected to the pool. Call it a windfall for USA Swimming, always in search of a sprinter to publicize and, in Jones’ case, one it can promote to the African-American community. Jones is the second black sprinter to win a national title, joining Anthony Ervin. Ervin won Olympic gold in the 50 free during the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Having recently signed a contract with Nike, Jones has been surging since last year, when he won gold in the 50 free at the World University Games in Turkey. He followed that effort with a victory in the 50 free for North Carolina State at March’s NCAA Championships and won silver in the 50 free at the World Short Course Championships in Shangai, China in April.
En route to his triumph in the one-lap sprint, Jones became the 10th man in history to dip under the 22-second mark, thanks to a showing of 21.94. His prelim effort in the 100 free made him the 11th-fastest American in history. Jones figures to play a major role in relay action for the United States, which hasn’t won the 400 free relay title since the 1996 Olympics. Away from the water, he hopes to be a role model.
“The more I can glamorize swimming to the African-American society, I will,” Jones said. “It would be great to get more kids involved.”