Cullen Jones Embracing Role to Help Swimming Continue to be More Inclusive — and Show New Paths

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Photo Courtesy: Speedo

Cullen Jones has a front-row seat for the wave of changes in the sport of swimming — and continues to be a part of them.

The professional sport is pushing new boundaries in regard to age, and Jones is helping lead the sport into greater diversity.

“I was thinking about getting a pool and opening a swim school. But I started to think that if I did that, I would be helping my community. But I built my platform to be so much bigger, so I felt like I would be better utilized trying to be a much bigger national face and try to work through Speedo and the USA Swimming Foundation and being Co-Chair of Team Black,” Cullen Jones told Swimming World. “After George Floyd, I was profiled outside my house. I had to do something because my son is just drawn to water and I don’t want him to feel like an outsider. I have to be a part of fixing that or changing the perception of that.”

The biggest challenge is where to start.

“The first thing is to push the learn to swim aspect. Then diversifying the sport is grassroots. I know that Joel Shinofield and I have had some awesome talks about outreach and this next step. But there are gaps. The first gap is getting kids to learn to swim. Then the gap is looking at high school or club or both. Then at 16 looking into schools. Now a junior in college, can I go pro? There are gaps that Team Black can help talk about,” Cullen Jones said. “It is about trying to make sure I can illuminate that 7-year-old’s goals and show how they can get to that next step and show how we did it. I love that USA Swimming lights to highlight us and show pictures and inspire with quotes, but it isn’t showing how we got there. That is my biggest goal to show that pathway.”

As in any aspect of life, once pathways are visible, more people will take them, especially diverse paths.

“I am not trying to make swimming a Black sport. It might always be a majority white sport, but we need to make sure it is fully inclusive. If you choose to swim, it is not a farfetched thought. As long as Black people think that swimming isn’t for them, we have a problem. That is part of the narrative I am trying to deface,” Jones said.

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Cullen Jones Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

It is something Jones had to balance when he was an Olympic swimmer.

“I ignored it behind the blocks. I am an athlete, but when I get out, I put that other cap back on and try to be a role model for Black athletes,” he said. “It is a big burden and it is a lot when you are trying to train but it comes with the territory. Venus and Serena and Tiger have had to deal with the same thing in their sports.”

Having a support system among athletes has been a big boost to swimming, Jones said, and something he is working on doing more with.

“After George Floyd, I felt helpless. I thought about my experience and found out that I knew Giles Smith and Simone Manuel, but did I really know them? Was I giving them support? I know at that time, I needed support. We are being more supportive of each other.”

Jones has a different perspective now then when he was an active swimmer. Watching the Olympic trials has allowed him to look through past and present lenses simultaneously as some of his friends continue to push the age boundaries in the sport.

“We are really still defining it aren’t we? The evolution of the sport has changed where we are able to support ourselves. We are figuring out that age median is changing. It used to be one Olympics and you were done. Now we have Schmitty (Allison Schmitt) going to her fourth. That is awesome. I got a little emotional on that one because I know how much she has been through. To see her do so well means a lot,” Cullen Jones said. “It is hard (as a spectator). I am used to being the one giving heart failure to everyone, now I am having it watching all of my friends racing.”

He even had thoughts of trying to have one last swim at the Olympic trials.

“When I got here, I just felt that it could have been a really cool thing for my son to watch me race on more time. It’s not a regret, but then I think about all the training it would have taken to be here,” Cullen Jones said. “I am proud of how I hung up the goggles.”

But even more proud of how he is staying connected with swimming, and pushing it in the right direction.

3 comments

  1. avatar
    NW

    Thank you for this article.. As a Black Swim Mom, it is challenging when your child is the only one. I always advocate for swimming be it summer league, high school or club swim. Aquatics is for everyone and families must feel supported and seen in their efforts to participate.

  2. avatar
    Quentin

    Absolute legend. Thanks for your leadership, Cullen.

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