Cullen Jones and Diversity in Competitive Swimming

Cullen Jones surprised the swimming world in August with a victory in the 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. Nationals. The victory impressed Nike enough to sign Jones to the richest endorsement deal ever for a short distance swimmer, more than $2 million over the next seven years. Nike hopes this black swimmer will continue to prove himself in a sport desperately seeking diversity.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

As athletes go, Cullen Jones is not famous yet. But if you saw this American swimmer on the pool deck or the medal stand, you'd notice right away that he's rare: an African-American in a sport dominated by whites.

What you wouldn't see are the millions of dollars some are investing in him. They hope to inspire a new wave of athletes to take up his sport.

Dave DeWitt of North Carolina Public Radio reports.

Unidentified Woman: On your markā€¦

(Soundbite of beeping sound)

DAVE DEWITT: The 50-meter freestyle is a mad dash of a race that lasts around 20 seconds. Competitors launch themselves into the pool at the start, take just one breath, then swim like they're being chased by sharks.

ANNOUNCER: To the wall - and it is Jones, 21.84.

DEWITT: Cullen Jones won this race at the Pan-Pacific Championships in August, and later in a relay became the first African-American to hold a swimming world record. It capped off a month in which he signed a $2 million endorsement deal with Nike, the richest ever for a swimmer who specializes in sprints.

(Soundbite of swimmers in pool)

DEWITT: Cullen Jones trains for those few seconds of racing in a dimly lit 1950s-era pool on the North Carolina State University campus. He glides through the water with what he calls easy speed. But how he got here, from Irvington, New Jersey, to the top of his sport, was neither easy nor fast.

Mr. CULLEN JONES (Swimmer): There were a lot of gangs around where I lived. The Crips and the Bloods were very big. Definitely never want to move back there, but I'd say at the same time I learned a lot living there.

DEWITT: Jones found solace in swimming. He discovered the sport by following a friend to a meet at the Newark Swim Club when he was eight years old. He was instantly hooked. Evan Morganstein is Jones's agent.

Mr. EVAN MORGANSTEIN (Agent, Premier Management Group): To be a swimmer, that's not a cool sport. How people must've looked upon him, you know, we're going to all go out and play basketball or baseball. You're going to the pool. That's odd. That's weird, you know. But he stuck with what he had a passion for. And I think that's what he got from his parents, that sort of steely nerve to stay committed to who you are and what you're all about.

DEWITT: Jones's father Ronald died of lung cancer before Cullen would earn a college scholarship, win an NCAA title and sign the endorsement deal with Nike. All the apparel companies that make swim gear pursued Jones, but Nike appealed to him because of the brand's popularity within the African-American community and its history of marketing black athletes in sports dominated by whites, including Tiger Woods in golf and Serena Williams in tennis.

Nike spokesperson Morgan Shaw sees the same potential in Cullen Jones.

Ms. MORGAN SHAW (Spokesperson, Nike): Cullen is great for the Nike brand. He exemplifies everything that we want in an athlete both in the pool and out of the pool.

DEWITT: How much of an impact Cullen Jones will have out of the pool remains to be seen. He knows that since Woods won the 1997 Masters, African-American participation in golf has grown by some estimates as much as 200 percent.

Mr. JONES: It's not a matter of him actually needing to try to turn around and say, hey, I play golf. It's just the fact that you see an African-American doing it and you're like, wow, I can do that too.

DEWITT: USA Swimming, the sport's governing body, has hired a diversity specialist to help spur growth. Jones's coach, Brooks Teal, says the sport is ready for such a change and that Jones can lead the way.

Mr. BROOKS TEAL (Swimming Coach): It has been slow in coming. There have been African-Americans in the sport, but none that have really both excelled to the level that Cullen has but also been willing to embrace it the way that Cullen does.

DEWITT: He embraces that added pressure by turning it into motivation and by not letting it affect why he began swimming in the first place.

Mr. JONES: I get paid for what I love to do. People have said, you know, technically you're swimming for. And I'm like no I'm not. I'm swimming because I love it.

DEWITT: His training and Nike's marketing efforts are pointed to those few primetime nights at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the world will know who he is and Cullen Jones will try to change the history of his sport in just 20 seconds.

For NPR News, I'm Dave Dewitt.

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