With the 2012 London Olympic Games only a few months away, we caught up with swimmer Cullen Jones as he preps for the US trials. Jones captured gold in during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when he won with Team USA and he's ready for more in this year’s games. He spoke with us about his Make A Splash organization, his experiences as one of the few African-Americans in swimming, and his love for the Knicks.
Interview by Elias Ahmed (@thatedude)
How did it feel to win a gold medal?
It was amazing. It the scariest thing I’ve ever done but at the same time it was the most fun. There was a lot of pressure on us but not necessarily because everyone was worried about Michael [Phelp's] medal count. It was more about Team USA. We were underdogs so getting that gold medal was something that we were looking forward to. We wanted it, even though everyone said that we couldn’t do it and that we were probably going to get second place, we didn’t believe that.
You were the second African-American to win a gold medal in swimming. What did that mean to you? Was that a really big moment for you in that sense or was it something that was kind of secondary?
I wouldn’t use the word “secondary.” I just think that if I was to sit back and think in that way, it would probably freak me out. I was going after my goal. I had a goal of trying to help the team in any way possible, and swim as fast as I possible could. Being a role model or being the second African-American to win a gold medal are just the perks of [reaching that goal].
We know people have probably hit you with the “Oh, black people don’t swim!” stereotype.
I get it all the time. [Laughs.]
What's your reaction when you hear things like that?
You definitely like to break stereotypes but I think that it’s more about exposure than anything else and that’s why I’ve been working with an initiative since 2008 called "Make A Splash." That’s really to get kids in the water and get them water safe. It’s a drowning prevention initiative and and breaking that stereotype definitely feels good. That’s why I do what I do. It's not only to reach my own goals but this is something that we can change.
I’ve read that you started swimming after a drowning incident in Pennsylvania.
Yeah, I was five years old and my parents wanted to take me to an amusement park so of course I was excited. My dad, who was 6’4" at the time, he wants me to get on the biggest ride there so I’m like "OK, I got this!” We go down the ride I end up hitting the bottom of the pool and flipping upside down; it was an inner tube. I was down there for about 25-30 seconds. So my dad comes in, the lifeguard comes in, they pull me out, and they have to resuscitate me. The first thing I do was when I wake up I say, “What’s the next ride we’re getting on?” [Laughs.] My mom got me into swim lessons instantly.
We heard you like basketball and you’re from New York, so how do you feel about your Knicks?
How do I feel about my Knicks? [Laughs.] You know, I think we have a lot of talent; we just gotta put it together. Finally we have a bench. [But] everyone can’t be Superman. We got All-Stars on the team, let them be All-Stars. Not everyone coming off the bench needs to be an All-Star. I’m not gonna say no names. [Laughs.]
Aside from sports, word is that you're interested in becoming a designer?
Yeah, yeah. I was at 106 & Park and I wore a red jacket that I designed with a stylist out in LA. She’s a big deal; she’s done a lot of work. Her name is Perchelle. She’s done a lot of big work and my Twitter is blowing up, everyone’s like, “Where’d you get that jacket?! Where’d you get that jacket?!” But you can’t get it, I had it made. The first thing I want to do is jump into jeans first. There’s always a market for jeans. It’s not an easy way, but it’s a nice way to kind of get my feet wet. No pun intended. Ha! Like that, right?
Lastly, what's your ultimate goal for the 2012 Olympics?
[I have the] same goals as 2008 except my major goal this year is to find that same success swimming individually. Swimming in the relay is great, I still want to be a part of the relay, but I really want to swim on my own and let people know that we [African-Americans] do swim and that I can do it by myself, too. [Laughs.]