- Elizabeth Merrill
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The little girls swoon now instead of yawning, and ask Cullen Jones if he'll be their prom date. He's judging the Miss America pageant; he's doing Vegas.
And who said swimming was unhip?
It is all, inevitably, about the "briefs." Jones is endorsement-savvy now, and he can't utter the S-word because he has a deal with Nike. Today, he is speaker-circuit cool. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, he took barbs for competing in a sport with skimpy trunks.
"It can be a challenge," Jones said. "My friends were looking at me like, 'Uhh, seriously, that's all you wear?' I got made fun of a little bit. For the most part they were supportive, but they also thought it was weird at the same time."
Then along came Beijing. After the massive success of Michael Phelps and Team USA, swimming has gone from geek to chic. Jones is still a casual celebrity, six months after his gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay, unencumbered by the Phelps-paparazzi baggage but popular enough to draw attentive young crowds.
His old swimming pool in New Jersey is bustling now with Cullen wannabes. Whether they're in Speedos or a cutoff pair of jeans, Jones doesn't really care. He is just the third African-American swimmer to make the Olympics, but the story he always tells is from 20 years ago, when he almost became a much harder statistic. He was 5 when he headed down a water ride at an amusement park, flipped over, passed out and nearly drowned. His mom signed him up for swimming lessons that next week, and his love for the sport -- in a neighborhood where basketball and just about every other sport was more popular -- led to a college scholarship and newfound fame.
He's using it to encourage minorities to learn how to swim. Black children drown at a rate of more than three times that of white children, and a recent study sponsored by USA Swimming said that 58 percent of black children can't swim. Jones didn't realize the disparity in the sport until he was about 15 and started competing hard-core.
"It's still a white-dominated sport," Jones said. "I think that kind of pushes kids away from it a little bit."
But not at the John F. Kennedy Recreational Center in Newark. Elliott Bradley, who used to coach Jones at JFK, says the aquatics center has seen an "influx of students" registering for swim classes since last summer's Olympics. Some local schools have added swimming to their curriculum, he says.
"We have some children who saw the Olympics who want to emulate what [Jones] has done," Bradley said. "They're here every day participating in different aquatic skills to help take them to that level."
Jones, who trains in North Carolina, is still a regular at JFK. He tells them that he didn't start out as a child prodigy, and that he found himself plodding away in the outside lanes before his long hours finally paid off. He launched the Cullen Jones Diversity Tour, and is working on a documentary about the Flaherty Dolphins, a team from Boston made up mostly of minority children. The documentary also includes Jones' journey to Beijing.
The kids know all about that by now -- the world-record time, the drama. Jones swam the third leg of the relay, then Jason Lezak made up a full body length to beat France by eight-hundredths of a second. When it was over, teammate Garrett Weber-Gale told Jones to get up because they had just won. He was too tired to celebrate.
But he quickly regained his focus. Jones told reporters that he hoped his exposure ended the stigma that black people don't swim. Six months later, he says, it's a start.
"I always make fun of it, flashing the gold medal," Jones said. "Once I show the medal, people are very interested. Then they start to pay attention.
"It was one of the biggest moments in Olympic history, especially in swimming. And so many people paid attention. When I got home, I actually had five people come up to me and say, 'Oh my God, you were that guy who was in that relay.' It's been surreal. In an instant, I was kind of thrown into stardom."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cullen Jones was 5 when he headed down a water ride at an amusement park and nearly drowned. Today, using his stature as an Olympic gold medalist, he's encouraging other African-American kids to learn to swim.