Cullen Jones Inducted to NC State Hall of Fame With Willis Casey

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Even a dozen years after he became just the second African-American swimmer to win an NCAA individual men’s title, Cullen Jones doesn’t think he’s experienced enough to be a legend, much less a Hall of Famer.

From the first time he stepped on the deck at a national meet, Jones felt he might be a little too green to be good.

“It’s always felt like I’ve been doing on-the-job training, learning every second of the way,” Jones says. “I’ve never felt comfortable about being the best.”

Yet Jones is a wave-breaking pioneer, someone who went from foundering at the bottom of the pool as a 5-year-old to the top of swimming’s highest podiums. He won the 2006 NCAA championship in the 50-yard sprint as a senior at NC State. He grabbed a piece of his first world record at the World University Games. He won gold and silver medals in relays and in individual races at the Beijing and London Olympics.

His credentials are not just impressive; they are historic. And that’s why Jones was inducted into the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Jones is one of a long line of Wolfpack swimmers who swam head and shoulders ahead of his competition. That tradition began in 1946, when fellow 2018 inductee Willis Casey was hired as NC State’s swimming coach and began building the program’s exceptional legacy that has been carefully cultivated by hall of fame inductee Don Easterling, Jones’s coach Brooks Teal and current coach Braden Holloway.

Jones, in fact, credits the Wolfpack’s family legacy as one of the biggest reasons he ever felt comfortable in the pool.

As a kid, in a Pennsylvania water park, Jones nearly drown because of his inability to swim. It was the moment that changed his life, because he once he learned the basics of this important life skill, he never stopped finding ways to improve, right up until he became the world’s fastest sprinter in the pool.

Jones tried basketball as a youngster, following in the footsteps of his father Ronald, who played college basketball. He found the same competitive spirit in the pool and went in search of his own success there.

His father was one of his biggest fans until his death from cancer when Jones was still in high school. His father’s words of encouragement have never left him.

“My parents had always had a huge impact on my career, from just coming to my meets, to sending me texts,” Jones says. “They always told me to never let anyone tell me there is something I can’t do. To go out and prove people wrong. To always believe in myself, and to choose friends who believe in me.”

He grew into a long, lean swimmer in a New Jersey club program, showing just enough potential to earn a scholarship at NC State. Coming south and finding a new family at NC State, Jones says, was perhaps the best thing he has ever done.

“My teammates became my family,” Jones says. “They were so strong, and so supportive. I always felt like I needed that family atmosphere, because my dad was gone and my mom was living in New Jersey. It allowed me to flourish.”

When Jones became a national champion, the Atlanta pool deck that hosted the NCAA Championship was filled with previous Wolfpack champions and his current teammates, all there to show their support and push him to victory. Even when he went to China, former assistant coach Chad Onken was poolside shouting “Wolf” and “Pack” every time he came up for air and flashing the wolf hand sign.

Jones postponed his academic career to turn pro in 2006, and quickly gained the swimming world’s attention by setting the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships meet record in the 50-meter freestyle. Later that year, he became the first African-American swimmer to own part of a world record, which he shared in the 100 free with Michael Phelps, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak.

In 2008, he broke the American record in the 50 free and qualified for his first Olympics. He was part of the gold-medal winning 4X100 relay team with Phelps, Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale in Bejing, and later won an individual silver medal in the 50-meters in London.

He won the 50 free at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and was second in the 100 free, earning him a second berth on the U.S. Olympic team. He won silver in the 50 free and in the 100 free relay and his second gold in the 100 medley relay.

In NC State history, he is one of five swimmers to win Olympic gold and he and fellow sprinter David Fox are the only Wolfpack swimmers to win an NCAA title and an Olympic gold medal.

While he’s spent countless hours in the pool perfecting his craft, the biggest contribution Jones has made to the sport is his devotion to the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative, teaching young children around the country and throughout the world the importance of learning life-long swimming skills.

It became such a part of his training regimen that Jones felt an utter void when he briefly stopped participating in the events to concentrate on his own training.

“It was kind of an epiphany moment for me: I was getting as much out of it for me as the kids were getting from me,” Jones said. “I had the single-minded focus of working on my own skills, but I realized the importance of spending time with the kids were for me.

“Their youthful exuberance helped me and inspired me, from watching them blow bubbles with their face in the water the first time to swimming the entire length of the pool.”

After nearly 10 years of living and training in Charlotte, Jones moved back to Raleigh to complete the final classes he needed to earn an English degree from NC State, a promise he made to himself and his mother when he turned pro in 2006.

He was a member of the 2018 graduating class, receiving his degree at commencement last spring.

Check out more ACC coverage here.

— The above press release was posted by Swimming World in conjunction with NC State. For press releases and advertising inquiries please contact Advertising@SwimmingWorld.com.

6 comments

    • Ricardo Serna

      Hector Palafox López jajajajajajaja siemore Cullen Jones

  1. avatar
    Sid Cassidy

    Well deserved Cullen!
    GO WOLFPACK!
    (Now let’s get Bob Mattson inducted)!