By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Monday, February 29, 2016
Cullen Jones is still here, still there, and as he helps kids across the nation learn to swim, everywhere. And when he’s competing, he’s still fast. Whether the Olympic gold medalist is blazing in the pool or a path outside it inspiring swimmers and teaching kids how to swim being out front as the Make a Splash lead for the USA Swimming Foundation, Cullen Jones loves his life in the water. He talks about his role as ambassador in the sport, where he sees positive strides in diversity, and how his run-up to Rio is going in this 20 Question Extra honoring Black History Month.
1. How are you still going so fast at this point?Cullen: I think that I have fallen in love with swimming again. I have to give credit for that to a lot of people around me. I have a great support network when it comes to the team.
2. So many iconic images and memories in your life from swimming, like the 2008 Olympics in Bejing when you, Garrett Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak helped Phelps make history.
Cullen: My life has been blessed with some amazing moments. What happened in 2008 -- which was of course great -- overshadowed what we did in 2006 in setting the world record (4 x 100 with Phelps, Lezak and Neil Walker at Pan Pacs), of which I am also very proud. But yes, I have been in some amazing situations with some amazing people. With the 50 free, the 100 free, 2008, 2012, and a lot of memories, I am very fortunate and very proud.
3. You went from being a new person on the team to a key member of history to now someone who a lot of people look up to -- what’s that like?
Cullen: You know, it’s a burden (laughs) and a blessing. I feel like I went from being the snot nosed kid to being the one who is asked, “How do we do this?” So I don’t know what it’s like, but I do appreciate that people look up to me. All I can do is share with them the stories that have taught me so much. It wasn’t long ago I was the deer in the headlights and had to learn how to put it together. And it turned out well in the end for me. We do what we do here in swimming in this country better than anyone else in the world. We have new swimmers coming through the ranks. And that is important. So it is also important that we bring those swimmers along and help them with lessons we have learned. And so that makes it a gift and a blessing for me to be able to share my experience.
4. Back to the relay in Beijing with Michael, how much does that picture mean to you -- I know how much it means to all of us, so iconic, but to you?
Cullen: I thought it caught us in a good moment. We looked fierce. You know, I was nervous -- literally terrified in that moment. We had all the odds against us. The French team was stacked to win that race. We had everyone coming at us, left and right. But then the moment is upon you, and what do you do? That’s what defines you. How you react. What you bring when it is needed the most. Everything else wasn’t an issue for us. We had the best relay we could have put together, and it was like, “Let’s go. Now.” People say, “What if it hadn’t have happened?” We didn’t think that way. You think that way, and you don’t win.
5. Did those nerves produce tension on the pool deck?
Cullen: There was this moment behind the blocks, where Jason just looked back at us and said, “I’ve been through this in 2000 and in ‘04. Not again. Not in ‘08.” We were going to get it. Having someone like that was so important. I called him Superman, having a guy with that mindset, having Michael already won all those medals, and getting it done to get him the 8th...it was amazing. Michael had, even then, this maturity about him, where, even though I was older than him, I still looked up to him. You knew you were not going to let him lose. No, you would not be a part of letting that get away. We were going to win. That attitude became so infectious that we were so pumped that we knew we could make it happen -- we had that will. And look at what Jason did to end it. Superman.
6. Do you guys ever talk about it?
Cullen: It was one of the coolest moments in my career -- in our careers, and meant so much to be a part of it. I had this moment where I was sitting down with Garrett this past November at Golden Goggles, and we just sat and talked about how it was one of the coolest moments ever, and how great it was we knew we could win. We laugh about it now, but I think we’d both admit it was probably the most stressful moments of our lives!
Cullen: Oh, absolutely -- I would, if I could watch it! I can’t watch it -- my heart (laughs) goes through the roof. I know what happens, how it turns out, but still…
8. You are out front with Make a Splash, part of the sport’s greatest history and moment, and yet you seem so articulate and calm in those moments, how is that?
Cullen: I appreciate that. I have to give the credit for that to my Mom. I was terrified being in front of people when I was younger. My Mom made me read public announcements at church. Even at a young age, having those lights shine on me and people stare, it gave me a lot of confidence.
9. Pretty amazing that an experience at such a young age affected you in such a big way, isn’t it?
Cullen: I learned from that, that I can get through anything if I chose to -- if I am prepared and have the right attitude, I can get through it. It’s been such a blessing to be with the USA Swimming Foundation for me. They say we have reached 3.5 million kids, and that is so many reached, but what I am most excited about is to keep the ball rolling. I don’t know that we’ll ever reach every single person in American society but I do know that Make a Splash is a huge first step. So that’s my life goal, in addition to swimming, making a significant impact.
10. You also learned a lot from your father, didn’t you?
Cullen: I did. And you know, I am getting a little solemn on you, but one of the things the pastor at our Baptist Church said when my father died -- this pastor had overseen quite a few funerals -- was that he had not seen ever, a more diverse group than those who came to my Dad’s funeral. To see and understand that, in context, was such a blessing. And I feel like being in such diverse situations - living in New York, being in New Jersey, going to a Catholic School, training at a Jewish Community Center, and going to a Baptist Church had a tremendously positive influence on shaping and developing me.
11. Who do you look up to now in the sport?
Cullen: We have great people swimming, great teammates and leaders. But as far as moving forward, I would say Rowdy Gaines. He has been a huge inspiration for me. From the beginning, I would see him at more events than I could count. I watch how he handles it when he MCs an event -- I’ve seen him do that more than I could count, and I take bits from each one. I watch how he handles crowds and works rooms. Rowdy is such a good person, and his passion for the sport is so sincere, and he’s so genuine as a person that people instantly feel this connection to him, and receive his message. So I think that’s taught me a lot. And he’s funny, which I think is something I might have a little bit of too -- being able to have the ability to read a room and connect with them through humor. And there’s always a reason to make people smile.
12. How do you work so well with these kids who you teach to swim -- you literally introduce them to the water and water safety?
Cullen: The Number One thing I ask is how many want to be in the water when it gets hot during summertime. All the hands go up. They love the water. They want to be in it. Many parents don’t think of water safety when they have kids. So we have to change that. There is a problem with kids drowning left and right. Sometimes it’s because the parents didn’t learn to swim, and that is something - a mindset, like many other things -- that gets handed down to kids. We need to break that pattern. We need to bridge the gap especially in black communities. My Mom was terrified of water, but she knew that I could die if I didn’t know how to swim, so she went against the grain to make that happen. I was five when I almost drowned. So learning to swim not only saved my life, but all these years later, look at how it changed my life.
13. Your Mom is so sweet, you make her sound so strict, but she’s an angel isn’t she?
Cullen: I always (laughs) feel like her hand is still right behind me, just looming, in case I make a poor decision and do something wrong. She is nice, certainly, but she was definitely a strict Mom. That smile you have seen can turn very quickly into a stern frown that sends a message she doesn’t need to provide any words for. So don’t (laughs) let her fool you! Listen, she’s a great Mom, and I am so blessed to have her. She didn’t have a very fortunate upbringing, and she didn’t want her own child to go through that so she showered me with love. She also knew I had to be prepared to make the right decisions, and in her beliefs that center around hard, smart work. So I do love her, a lot -- but growing up I heard, no, a lot! I’d want to go do something, and she’d say, “No, you have homework.” I’d want to goof off in summer, and she’d say, “No, you will get a job.” So as I have moved forward as a professional, I have appreciated and respected her even more.
14. How does Make a Splash make an even bigger difference, how will you all get these numbers, especially in African-American neighborhoods, down?
Cullen: If we can get it into the schools, that would be perfect. I look at Australia, where learning to swim is like how we view learning to drive here. People, when I was there were, were shocked that I had almost drowned when I was 5. They were like, “How could you be 5 years old and still not have known how to swim?” But it’s culturally different. So we have to build -- to create and sustain that kind of culture here with swimming and water safety. And I would love to see that happen here in the U.S. The thing is, swimming is such a good skill, such a fun sport, and such a great lifestyle, that once we get them into it, they often stay with it in some form for life, and it adds a lot to the quality of their lives.
15. When I saw you in Austin at the Arena Pro Swim Series, you made time for your fans under the rail up by where Rowdy was announcing -- what goes into stopping your routine to make that time?
Cullen: You know what it is? I never take it for granted. I know there will be a day when everyone hangs up their jersey. So I don’t take it for granted. I have amazing fans. I don’t swim great every single time (laughs) but in Austin the fans were just so generous and awesome to me. You get a boost from that. You get second or third, or don’t go a time, and then some young person with this great heart wants you to sign something or get your picture with them, and you hear how much you mean to them, and you want to try harder, and find a way to go faster. I told them (in Austin), “I hope I didn’t let you down” and they were all like, “No way!” or “You didn’t let me down!” So part of the commitment here is that you want to make sure the fans feel back what they give to us -- you want them to feel as special as they make us feel. But that moment, another moment like that one in Austin you saw, that was so cool. And in my mind, I won’t ever take it for granted.
16. You are always fast when you need to be, going back to winning gold in the 50 at WUGs, or the two gold medals you won at the Olympics, the two golds at Worlds, the two golds at Pan Pacs -- any of the 13 international medals -- how do you rise up at the right time, so to speak?
Cullen: I think a lot of it has to do, in this case, with the excitement around the Olympics. I have always been a fan of the Olympics since I first saw it on TV when I was 8. So since I made that first USA Swimming team, something is always getting me motivated. I have a great coach in Dave Marsh, and there is such a love and respect there. Day to day we’re going back and forth, and it’s nothing but a great commitment and respect to the same goal.
17. What does Black History Month mean to you?
Cullen: I think Black History Month is an extended moment just to look back. I have been blessed in the past years to have kids find me on social media because they want to interview me for a project for Black History Month. I spend (laughs) so much time answering emails and questions -- and that is a blessing for me. I am so fortunate I have done something they see as worthwhile to share during Black History Month. I can’t believe they remember me. I look at the leaders who paved the path for us in this country -- MLK, Malcolm X -- and I used to write about those people during Black History Month. So it means a lot that people want to do a book report on me -- it’s such an amazing feeling that I have done something in my life that moved a young person to choose to write about me. And it’s always cool for me in February because it’s my birthday!
18. Happy Birthday! With a birthday on Feb. 29, you are only celebrating your 8th birtday -- you look great! But being 32 now, on a serious note, how have you kept going so fast?
Cullen: I feel my life has in some ways been the definition of irony. I keep going, and then I get even more people in my life who make me better -- make me do better, and want to be better. And then another opportunity arises, and I am prepared for another challenge, maybe even one I didn’t anticipate. And being at SwimMAC, it’s the same thing -- now I am the one who is inspired seeing people I train with doing amazing things every single day. I sat back the other day and watched Ryan Lochte doing underwaters, and it was like watching a brother of mine do something to get better. People don’t get to see that, and I felt so fortunate in that moment that I have had all these opportunities. So those inspirations get me up, to the pool and in the water each day.
19. You set the American record for the 50, and then world records with your 100 on the 4 x 100 relays, and then again -- do those events, training for both, still help you?
Cullen: It did, and it does. And it’s really going backward for me in that if I have a good 100, then I have a good 50. That is, I always find a lot of inspiration and a lot of push for my 50 when I know my 100 well and can finish a good 100. The 100 is a painful event for me because it’s like a controlled 50 where you are pushing as hard as you can for twice as long as the 50. So if I can do a great 100, I can do a great 50, and that’s been my focus this year -- to get to a good place in the 100. I have had two in-season bests in my 50 free this year -- I didn’t win in Austin, but I am doing times I haven’t done at this point in the quadrennial since 2012.
20. What has this path taught you about yourself -- where you are, where you came from, and any connectedness you feel between the two?
Cullen: I think a lot of it has to do with how my Mom raised me about the importance of goal setting. There is something every day you can do better. I can clean up something and make something better. Every part of my life has been about those baby steps, and taking the joy from each day and using it as motivation for the next day, for the next goal. So here I am at the tender age (laughs) of 32, and every day still counts for me. I have to get better at my next practice -- I just have to find a way to clean something up, work smarter, and do better. And I am ready to go, ready to do the work. At this age, there is no time to waste, there is no time to make the same mistakes that I made when I was younger. I have to hold my streamline better, focus on my stroke, and be proud of what I did better that day, and understand how it will make me better when the time comes and I have to step up again. So when that time comes, I won’t be letting any kind of negative thinking get in the way of my own swim. I’ll be ready to do my best. So I will go out, give it all I can, and have fun.