Chapter OneSlip Sliding Away
Ronald Jones climbed onto his inner tube and went down the waterslide just moments before his young son, Cullen, who would be riding solo on his own tube. Before going down, he told Cullen to hang onto the inner tube when he came down the chute into the pool. Following Cullen would be his mother, Debra. The family was enjoying their vacation at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Cullen went down, making the kinds of joyous noises that any five-year-old would make when zooming down a slide into water. And then the sounds stopped.
"I heard Cullen go down, and then I heard his screams just get cut off." This puzzled Debra, who wouldn't know the situation until she went down the slide. What Debra didn't know was that Cullen's screams were cut off by the water engulfing her young son. It's hard to scream when you're at the bottom of the pool.
Ronald was returning his inner tube and did not see Cullen come down. Debra, who could not swim, came down the slide behind Cullen. Standing at five feet eight inches, but not a swimmer, she could barely keep her head above the water. Knowing that her son was in dire trouble, she tried to get the attention of the lifeguards. When Cullen was finally brought to the surface, he was unconscious.
"When I hit the bottom of the ride, there was this huge pool of water, and I flipped right over," recalls Cullen. He was eventually rescued by his father and given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by one of the lifeguards.
And like any kid who had just taken the ride of his life, Cullen wanted to "do it again!" Debra, who reluctantly went on the ride in the first place, said, "You must be out of your mind!"
The near-drowning incident didn't deter Cullen. Nor did it deter his mother. After the accident, Debra Jones knew she needed to provide Cullen with the skills to protect himself so she would never again worry about her son nearly drowning. She enrolled him in swimming classes the very next week.
Cullen's brush with death occurred in 1989. Less than twenty years later, he would wear Olympic gold around his neck, and hold the world record for the 50m freestyle—in swimming! A sport that nearly claimed his life years earlier took him to the top of the world.
Cullen Jones Fast Facts
Date of birth: February 29, 1984 (He's a leap year baby!)
Born in the Bronx, New York
Grew up in Irvington, New Jersey
Parents: Ronald and Debra Jones
Siblings: Cullen is an only child
Nicknames: CJ, Nova
What his mother calls him when he is in trouble: Cullen Andrew!
Favorite color(s): a tie between red and black
Favorite sport (other than swimming): basketball, playing and watching
Favorite movie: Disney's Aladdin (I love the genie and the idea of getting three wishes.)
Favorite book(s): Harry Potter, biographies, anything about Michael Jordan and Apollo Ono. "I love to read anything about people overcoming adversity."
Favorite book in the Bible: Proverbs
Loves video games, especially Wii and Dance Central.
Most influential persons: his father, Ronald Jones, Coach Ed Nessel
Home: North Carolina
College: North Carolina State 2002–2006
Speed to Glory
Cullen Jones Fast Facts
Honors and Awards
Three time NCAA All American, 2004, 2005, 2006
Seven ACC Championships
–2009 FINA World Champs, 400m freestyle relay
–2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, 400m freestyle relay
–2007 World Championships, 400m freestyle relay
–2006 Pan Pacific Championships, 400m freestyle relay
–2006 Pan Pacific Championships, 50m freestyle
–2005 World University Games, 50m freestyle (record 22:17)
ACC Swimmer of the Year and ACC Meet MVP 2006
ESPY Best Sports Moment, 2008 Olympics, 400m freestyle relay
Dr. Leroy Walker North Carolina Male Olympian of the Year, 2008
World Record Holder, 400m freestyle relay, 2008 Olympics
American Record Holder, 50m freestyle, 2009
Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year nomination, 2010
#1 Good Guy in Sports—the Good Man Project 2011
The Grio's 100 History Makers in the Making of 2011
Chapter TwoGrowing Up Cullen Jones
On February 29, 1984, Cullen Andrew Jones was born at the Montefiore Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx (then known as the Albert Einstein Hospital). Cullen was born on Leap Day, and he almost wasn't born at all. The umbilical cord wrapped around Cullen's neck and nearly strangled him. But the doctors were able to deliver him through surgery, a caesarian section. (More than twenty years later, Cullen returned to the hospital — as an Olympian guest speaker, where he got to meet the doctor who delivered him— who was quite surprised and excited to learn he had delivered an Olympian!)
Cullen Andrew Jones, who would later be called CJ by his mother, was the only child of Ronald and Debra Jones. How they met is the stuff of Hollywood romance. Cullen's parents connected one fateful day in New York City—the largest city in the United States—with a population today of more than eight million people.
However, their chance encounter wasn't the first time they had met. Both from the Bronx, Cullen's parents had dated as teenagers but eventually drifted apart. Seven years later they happened to be walking along 6th Avenue in Manhattan when they saw one another. "I was like, wow, what are the odds?" said Debra. The rest, as they say, was history.
Born in the Bronx, Cullen and his family eventually moved to Irvington, New Jersey. He began walking around the age of one, and once he became mobile, he was always on the move. As a kid, he was never content to just sit, his mother said, a fact that remains true of him today. "Even when I go to see him, he can only sit in the house for a short while before he's ready to go and explore," Debra said.
Cullen became more inquisitive as he got older, wanting to know how things worked, and his parents quickly learned they had to be careful with household items because young Cullen was apt to take them apart to see what made them tick. Yet Debra and Ronald often indulged young Cullen's appetite to know more, and they made adventures by taking him on many excursions. "I always looked forward to the weekends because I got to spend time with my mom and dad, and they were very, very active in my life," recalls Cullen.
"He would wake me up on Saturday morning asking what we were going to do," his mother said. "Every weekend was an adventure."
Debra traveled for her job, and Cullen often went along. He loved traveling. Even at the age of four, he had his suitcase packed to go. It may have held only toys, but Cullen was ready.
Even as an only child, Cullen was never lonely. He lived in a two-family house. He lived with his parents on the second floor, and his grandmother and uncle lived below (Debra's mother and brother). With an uncle and grandmother just a floor away, Cullen had family nearby to keep a watchful eye on him, but in New York there was one thing dividing their family — baseball! "My mom and dad were Mets fans, but my grandmother and I were Yankees fans," said Cullen. During the Subway Series, the games played between the New York major league baseball teams, Cullen would go downstairs and watch the game with his grandmother and bang on the ceiling whenever the Yankees won. "We were a house divided," Cullen said.
In addition to baseball fun, living with extended family meant always having someone around, so there was never a reason to be bored. "It was awesome!" said Cullen. His grandmother was always there, providing snacks and companionship, sharing frequent card games. "I became quite the card shark."
Like many boys at the time, Cullen was a huge movie fan, especially of Star Wars. Even now, as an adult, Cullen has a light saber his mother gave him for Christmas when he was twenty-five. The death defying, whip-wielding, grab-my-hat Indiana Jones was another favorite movie hero. Cullen also loved comic books and Matchbox cars. But Cullen found additional fun beyond toys—often at the expense of his mother.
A self-proclaimed jokester, Cullen loved pranking his parents. But according to Debra, he and his father often joined forces to play jokes on her. One of their favorites was hide and seek. She would go through their house, calling out their names, and searching until she finally found them.
Cullen would pull lots of small pranks, but nothing utterly ridiculous, crazy, or dangerous. His enjoyment was more along the lines of messing with his parents—like hiding the remote to the television and then denying that he knew its whereabouts. Whoopee cushions were another favorite. Yet there was one particular stunt that really stood out. When Cullen was around eleven, he decided to have a little fun with his father. "I pulled all of the medicine from the cabinet up to the front so that when he opened it, it would all fall out in front of him," laughed Cullen.
Even with parents that he considered to be strict when they needed to be, Cullen quickly points out they were "pretty cool parents." So cool, that at the tender age of eleven, they let him go out on his first "date." Of course, they went with him to chaperone.
"It was cool because I was eleven years old, and I was taking a girl out! Sure my parents were there—but at the same time, I was taking a girl out!" Even the young lady thought that it was cool that she was able to go out on a date. Where did they go? To the movies, of course—one of Cullen's favorite things to do—and to Boston Market for dinner. "I got dressed up," Cullen said. "I was ready to go."
The "pretty cool parents" scored big in Cullen's book. While they were somewhat strict and very structured with Cullen's life, they also enjoyed having fun. "I remember very fondly my parents laughing quite a bit. Whether I understood the jokes or not, they laughed a lot."
Family time for the Joneses meant watching movies together and eating out. "We watched a lot of movies," said Cullen, but not at the expense of schoolwork. Debra and Ronald took Cullen's schooling very seriously. "My parents were big into my homework, so the only time I got to do anything was when everything was done. But we watched movies all the time, and I always enjoyed it."
"We would eat on trays and watch movies during dinner," Cullen said. Watching television during meals didn't concern them. "That's how we always did it, and I enjoyed every minute."
Cullen's interest in how things work continued to grow as he did. Cullen was a techno buff, something he did alongside his father, who tinkered with and fixed computers on the side, in addition to his regular day job. His father's sense of technology led Cullen to become a self-described "gadget fiend."
When Cullen wanted to play on his father's computer, his dad had a simple answer. "The only way you're going to play on a computer is if you build your own." So at the age of eleven, with his father watching over, Cullen built his own computer. Cullen's father supervised him, but he let Cullen piece it together himself. The experience left a strong impression on Cullen, who said he could still build a PC today if he had to.
"My dad was a PC guy all the way," said Cullen. But even so, Cullen bought himself an Apple computer after he received his first big contract with Nike. "I love my Apple, but I almost felt like I was going against the grain."