A fierce and faithful athletic competitor, 24-year-old Cullen Jones hopes to make an international splash when he competes in next month's Olympic Games in Beijing, where he wants to help the U.S. team take back the 4x100 meter freestyle relay title it lost to the Australians in 2000 and South Africans in 2004.
The swimmer's rapid rise is especially astounding because the self-proclaimed "water baby," who just qualified for his first Olympic competition, nearly drowned when he was 5 years old.
As a young boy, Jones' parents took him to a water park where his father told him not to let go of his inner tube prior to heading down a big slide.
"When I got to the bottom of the pool after the slide, I flipped upside down and I was holding onto the inner tube, upside down. I passed out, panicked. And my dad had to jump in and come save me," said Jones, who, after a successful career at North Carolina State, emerged as one of the nation's fastest sprint swimmers.
His dad, Ron Jones, pulled him from the water. Cullen was unconscious, and lifeguards performed CPR on him. He coughed up a pint of water before taking his first breath and immediately asking his parents what the next ride was.
"I never really realized that day that I could've died," Jones said.
The Raleigh, N.C., resident's experience propelled him to learn how to swim.
Swimming Becomes a Passion
It soon became his passion, despite his father's desire to have him pursue basketball. As one of the swiftest swimmers on the planet, Jones now holds the distinction of being only the third African-American to make an U.S. Olympic swimming squad.
Though he dreams of gold in a sport desperately seeking diversity, he also wants his story and performance to inspire African-American youth to learn how to swim.
"I think there's still a stigma within the African-American race that black people don't swim," the New Brunswick, N.J., native said. "I've talked to tons and tons of groups of African-American kids and asked them, 'Who likes to get in the water?' and all hands go up. I ask, 'Who can swim?' All hands go up. And I'm like, 'Do you understand what that means to swim? You can't be in the shallow end. You have to be in the deep end.' Half the hands drop."
In fact, a 2007 study commissioned by USA Swimming and the University of Memphis found that 60 percent of African-American children don't know how to swim. And the Centers for Disease Control said African-American kids are three times more likely to drown than their Caucasian counterparts.
"You've gotten a whole culture to believe that swimming isn't something that they do or they're not, I guess, physically capable of doing," Jones said. "We have changed that stereotype."
Jones has funneled his love for the sport, and helping minorities learn how to swim, into the USA Swimming Foundation's Make A Splash Program . There, he is able to turn his words to actions.
"It's just a torch that was passed on to me by many other black swimmers that have been before me -- Maritza Correia, Byron Davis. It's something that we've all tried to push and try and get more and more kids. It's definitely not a burden; it's just a cause of mine," the 6-foot-5-inch Jones said.
He wants those future swimmers to see their own reflections in his Olympic-sized accomplishments. Jones, who at 16, lost his father to cancer, could become the second African-American Olympic swimming gold medalist in history. Anthony Ervin became the first when he won the 50 meter freestyle in a tie with Gary Hall Jr. in 2000.
The current 400 meter freestyle relay world record holder is on the cusp of adding the perfect ending to his fairy tale, with a team that's not necessarily favored to win the top prize. When the world gathers on Aug. 8, Jones hopes to make a name for himself one lap at a time.
Learn more about the USA Swimming Foundation's Make A Splash Program.