Welcome to the Evolving Man Project’s “Evolved Man of the Week” profile. Each week we will highlight an individual that embodies what it means to be an evolved person, famous and non-famous individual alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the ambassador for USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative, competition swimmer and Olympic gold medalist, Cullen Jones.
Cullen Jones was born in the Bronx, NYC but moved to New Jersey at a young age. He said the gangs ruled the streets in his community, and he avoided wearing certain colors to not be a target. At the age of five years old, Cullen almost drowned at a water park in Pennsylvania. He was rescued by a lifeguard on duty thanks to quick timing and CPR. After his brush with death, his mother made him take swimming lessons. At the tender age of eight years old, he was competing in his first swim meets.
Jones attended North Carolina State University, where he studied English and swam for the NC State Wolfpack swimming and diving team in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competition from 2003 to 2006. He turned professional in the summer of 2006 after signing with Nike and burst onto the scene shortly after at the 2006 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, where he set a meet record in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 21.84 seconds. He also swam a leg (split of 47.96) in the world record-breaking 4×100-meter freestyle relay and Michael Phelps, Neil Walker, and Jason Lezak. In 2007, he also won a gold medal in 4×100-meter freestyle relay with the same teammates in the 2007 World Aquatics Championships.
During his time as a competition swimmer, Cullen has face prejudice and discrimination. He recalled an incident during his high school years, after winning a swim met. A mother of one of the teenagers he beat asked, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?” His mother instilled in him to work hard and hold your head up high in the face of adversity. Years later, Cullen recalls being pulled over back a white cop. The cop made him pop his truck where the cop discovered his swim gear and pre-signed autographs Cullen gives to youth at his Make-A-Splash events. The cop let him go with a warning after realizing he was the black swimmer from Bejing’s Olympic Games.
Over the years, Cullen has raised awareness around drowning being the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States. His work and countless over since 2007 have gotten the rate of black youth that don’t know how to swim from 70% down to the low sixties. Four million kids have received swim lessons through the program and its local partners to make a splash initiative work. The sad and racist history of barring African-Americans from swimming pools and swim spaces still impacts the black community. To this day, 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1-4. Cullen’s peers see him as a trailblazer in the same vein as legendary black Olympic athlete Jesse Owens.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Uprising in May of 2020. It forced Cullen and many of his peers to reflect and speak up. Here is Cullen Jones in his own words:
“I always kept it very corporate,” Jones said. “I was always very neutral. You would never see me hanging out with my friends drinking because I worked with kids. That wasn’t the image that I really wanted to put out there. When it came to my political ideals, I never really put it out there because I wanted my platform to be very straightforward, clean-cut so that when companies want to align with me, they know they’re aligning with a safe brand.
“But, after George Floyd’s death, I was, of course, enraged and upset.”
Jones and other Black swimmers helped USA Swimming recraft a June 1 statement condemning racism. On June 12, USA Swimming published a new statement, acknowledging that the sport, like society, fostered systemic racism. It detailed four short-term steps the organization would take.
More than 30 U.S. Olympic, Paralympic, and national teamers came together to educate the swimming community on what Black Lives Matter means and to raise money for charities that support Black communities. Jones urged contributions to the Innocence Project to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
Today we honor Cullen Jones as our Evolved Man of the Week.