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Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones an icon for African-Americans

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Updated Monday, August 11th 2008, 9:35 PM

Bronx-born swimmer Cullen Jones didn't just help power the U.S. relay swim team to Olympic gold - he just may have shattered the stereotype that blacks can't swim.

Although Jones isn't the first African-American swimmer to make the Olympic squad (he's the third), or the first to win a gold medal (he's the second), he figured in one of the most exciting races in sports history.

And that thriller that will be replayed on Olympic highlight reels for generations to come.

"I hope this exposure from the race today, a kid can see this and say, 'Wow, a black swimmer - and he's got a gold medal,'" Jones, 24, said. "The stigma that black people don't swim ended today."

But the reason Jones began swimming in the first place is because the water nearly killed him.

Jones was 5 years old and living in Irvington, N.J., when his parents took him to a Pennsylvania water park to cool off. His mother, Debra, didn't want him to go down a slide in an inner tube because he couldn't swim.

Jones should have listened to his mother. When the inner tube flipped over, he panicked instead of letting go and then passed out.

It took CPR to bring him back to life. The next week, his mother sent him for swimming lessons at a YMCA in nearby Newark and then the John F. Kennedy Aquatic Center, which is also in Newark.

Jones took to the water immediately, but wasn't a standout at first, his coaches said.

"At first he was an average swimmer and he progressed," said Elliott Bradley. "The more he progressed, the better he got at it. I never thought he would go this far. I'm very proud of him."

Jimmy Wilson, the head coach at the swimming center, said Cullen just worked harder than the other swimmers.

"His mom would have to drag him out of the water," he said. "He was very highly motivated. Some kids just have that glow in him. I just watched him grow."

When Jones started winning, his mom began taking him for specialized training, where he refined his swimming skills. For a time, she would get him up before dawn and take him all the way out to Long Island for 5 a.m. practices in Hempstead.

"She was very devoted," Wilson said.

Jones was acutely aware that he stood out in the mostly white sport. But it did not deter him. And if he felt uncomfortable, he did not let it show.

"My parents always believed in the fact that whenever you leave the house, you're representing the family," he said in a recent interview.

Jones' father, Ronald, who played basketball in the Bronx, died of lung cancer when the young swimmer was 16. He did not live long enough to see Jones win a college scholarship, an NCAA title, a multimillion-dollar Nike endorsement contract or help set the world record in the 4x100-meter relay last year.

Although Jones set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle preliminaries at Olympic swimming trials last month, he didn't qualify for any of the individual events in Beijing. So his only shot for a medal was Sunday's dramatic relay race, in which he swam the third leg.

Now Jones, who hopes to channel his Olympic success and good looks into a modeling career, is devoting himself to a foundation he started aimed at helping minorities learn to swim - and compete. He is dating Olympic swimmer Maritza Correia, and he still swims six hours a day, seven days a week.

Jones said blacks can swim as well as anybody. "Not many black people played golf before Tiger Woods," he said.

csiemaszko@nydailynews.com



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