A Win for U.S. Swimmers and Black Children, Too

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Whew, that was close.

The U.S. men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay team won Olympic gold by a split second in Beijing on Monday. Thank you Jason Lezak, whose phenomenal performance not only rescued teammate Michael Phelps's quest for record gold but also, dare I say, helped save the reputation of another teammate, Cullen Jones.

Let's face it: Jones, the first African American to participate in an Olympic swim relay final, got smoked. He had begun the third leg with a slight lead over the archrival French team but ended up a half a body length behind. It happens to the best of them. Just ask Alain Bernard, France's sea serpent of a sprinter, who lost the final leg in the blink of an eye to Lezak.

Nevertheless, if the U.S. team had lost, it would have been seen as Jones's fault. He was, after all, the slow man. And because he's black, old questions would have resurfaced as to whether he had made the team because of his race and whether blacks are physiologically unsuited for competitive swimming.

Noting that one member of the Olympic swim team, Matt Grevers, had set an Olympic record in a preliminary heat of the 100-meter backstroke and anchored a world-record effort in the 400-meter freestyle relay, the Los Angeles Times asked: "So what does that incredible feat get Matt Grevers? Not a spot in the relay final Monday morning."

Jones got a spot, having helped set a world record in the 4x100 preliminaries. But he wasn't so impressive against the French. In the end, though, his performance was good enough, by eight hundredths of a second, which was the difference between American gold and French silver.

Much has been made of the psychological hurdles that the U.S. relay team had to overcome. The United States had not won the 4x100 freestyle since 1996. The Australians humiliated the team in 2000. The French, renowned as the fastest in the world, had vowed to smash the American team this year -- and Phelps's quest for eight gold medals along with it.

But the chemistry of the American team, with its first African American ingredient, would prove to be uniquely explosive. In no other Olympic swimming race has a world record been shattered by as much, nearly four seconds, as Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Jones and Lezak did in the 4x100 relay.

Jones hopes the victory will raise his profile as the black Aquaman, the world-class sprinter who crisscrosses the country teaching African American children how to swim. Wearing Olympic gold, instead of bearing the agony of defeat, will certainly help his cause.

At 24, the Bronx native is only the second African American swimmer to win a gold medal. (Anthony Ervin won the 50-meter freestyle in a tie with Gary Hall Jr. during the 2000 Olympics.)

"I've got big plans," Jones told Scott Fowler of McClatchy Newspapers after the victory in Beijing. "I want more minority kids to go to a swimming pool and try to swim because of me. I want kids to say, 'Look, a black swimmer. And he's got a gold medal!' And I want them to get in the water because of it."

Jones began swimming when he was 5, not long after he nearly drowned at an amusement park in Pennsylvania. The inner tube he was riding on a waterslide flipped over and pinned him underwater. He lost consciousness and coughed up a pint of water as lifeguards revived him. A few days later, his mother enrolled him in a swimming class.

A recent study sponsored by USA Swimming found that 58 percent of black children cannot swim, compared with 31 percent of white children. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children are three times as likely to drown as any other group of children.

In 2006, Jones signed a contract with Nike that helped make him a role model for young black swimmers. And he recently received $10,000 from Bank of America to help start the Cullen Jones Diversity Tour, which will hold swim meets and clinics for minority youths.

After his team's victory this week, Jones told Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News, "The stigma that black people don't swim ended today."

Not quite -- not with so many black children still drowning -- but getting closer, thanks to Jones.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company