A little over 15 minutes ago, USA won the Men’s 4×100 Freestyle relay, beating out the heavily favored French team (who had done some serious trash talking in the press, prior to the final) by, like, a centimeter (8 one-hundredths of a second, to be exact) in a super-dramatic come-from-behind win. Seriously, it was one of the most amazing races (in any sport) I’ve ever seen. The team smashed the world record by 4 seconds. The big story, of course, was that Olympic golden boy, Michael Phelps, who swam the lead in the relay, keeps his hope of winning 8 gold medals and beating Mark Spitz’s record alive.
But, my big story in all this is that of Cullen Jones, who as I write this, is the lone black figure on the medal podium, becoming just the second African-American ever to win a gold medal in swimming and the first to share/hold a world record. The first black swimmer to win the gold was Anthony Ervin, who tied for first in 2000 in the 50m freestyle. Interestingly, Ervin has a Jewish mother and Black and Native-American father and notably downplayed his race/ethnicity in interviews. Aside from the fact that, in his own words, he doesn’t really “look black” (very true), Ervin said of himself, “I have always known that I am…part African-American and many other things. But I was naive, because I didn’t know that meant anything – or would have the ramifications it did at Trials.”
So, to me, Jones is the first to have publicly approached his place on the Olympic swim team as a Black athlete. Back in July, Jones became just the 3rd African American to make a US Olympic team in swimming, behind Ervin and the first black female swimmer to make the cut, Maritza Correia (2004). Born in the Bronx and raised in New Jersey, Jones started swimming at 8 in innercity pools, on predominantly minority teams. Fueled by his experience, Jones has made it a personal quest to promote swimming in minority communities.
With the latest study showing that Black children ages 5 to 14 are three times more likely to drown than white kids of the same age, Jones’s cause isn’t just about exposing kids to swimming as a sport; it’s about promoting the importance of swimming as a survival skill. (I thought about this a lot when Katrina happened: if there were any ethnic/socioeconomic group in the U.S. that could be considered the least equipped, culturally, to survive a disaster involving massive amounts of water, it'd be poor black people.) Jones himself almost drowned at the age of 5 on a waterpark ride. It’s really gonna take changing the culture surrounding swimming among minority communities.
Anyway, it was really awesome seeing Jones in the water and earning a gold medal in sport in which our general absence, historically, has been a cruel joke of sorts. Word, Cullen.