These days, Cullen Jones is considered a national icon, a role model and a walking — well, swimming — success story.
While balancing a hectic schedule that takes him across the country for everything from speaking engagements to photo shoots, Jones still has a passion for being in the pool.
"You dive in the water, and it's like 'this is what started this,'" says Jones, who trains at Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatics Center twice a week.
The past four years have been what Jones calls surreal. In 2008, when he became the second African-American to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, Jones' fame and platform was immediately elevated. Now 28, he's had dinner with Michael Jordan, has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and is featured in a recent issue of Glamour magazine. He has 13,782 followers on Twitter.
Swimming has opened more doors than he ever imagined.
"It's a dream come true, but definitely surreal," says Jones.
Jones and about 40 other swimmers from SwimMAC Carolina are heading to Omaha, Neb., this weekend to begin competition in the U.S. Olympic Trials, which begin Monday. Jones has qualified in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events.
A New Jersey native, Jones began swimming at the age of 8, did not compete in a national championship of any kind until he was in college at N.C. State and was 21 before he thought he had a shot at making the Olympic team.
But it was one of Jones' first experiences in the water that some say makes his path to success remarkable.
Jones was 5 years old when he and his parents stepped onto a theme park ride. Jones was tall for his age and allowed to ride by himself on an inner-tube ride that ended in a pool of water. His father, Ronald, was going to go first, then help Cullen when he arrived at the bottom. Cullen's mother, Debra, was going to follow her son.
But when Ronald exited his tube and turned around to help his son, Cullen's tube was upside down and his son was out of sight. Cullen was trapped under the tube and was unconscious for 30 seconds before a lifeguard resuscitated him.
"It really didn't hit me what happened at five years old," says Jones, who remembers first asking what ride the family was going to try next. "It's the true definition of irony to sit back and almost drown and 20 years later to be an Olympic gold medalist."
That childhood experience also inspired him to become involved with U.S.A. Swimming's Make a Splash Foundation. Jones travels the country in an effort to promote and teach swimming to minority children. He speaks and conducts swim clinics.
"I get to go to these events and get them excited, teach them a swim lesson and get the fire started in them," he says. "I just enjoy it."
In 2008, Jones swam the third leg of the Olympic gold medal-winning and world record-setting 4x100-meter relay team, which also included Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak. The U.S. team won the dramatic race in come-from-behind fashion, and the result was made famous by announcer Dan Hicks' call of, "Here comes Lezak!"
Jones says fans will notice a different stroke than he had in 2008. He has worked extensively with SwimMAC CEO/Director of Coaching David Marsh to improve his kick and open up his recovery, when his arm comes out of the water.
Now that he's been around the Olympic block before, Jones says he is much calmer than he was in 2008.
"But it's not from the aspect of it meaning anything less," he says.