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While most chose to focus on the historic goal of Michael Phelps trying to win eight gold medals, history was already made in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay as his teammate Cullen Jones became the second Black swimmer to win an Olympic medal.
Jones swam the third leg and kept the Americans in the hunt with anchor Jason Lezak eeking out the victory and lowering the Americans’ world record to 3:08.24 in perhaps the most thrilling Olympic relay ever.
But while Phelps and Lezak got most of the attention, announcer Bob Costas made it a point to briefly mention the historical significance of Jones’ victory. As only the second African-American male - and third Black overall - to ever make the swim team, he joined Anthony Ervin (50m freestyle - 2000) as an Olympic gold medalist while dispelling a long-held myth that Blacks and swimming don’t mix.
The irony is that all three Black swimmers who made the Olympic team have all won medals. In addition to Ervin and Jones, Maritza Correia won silver in the 400m freestyle relay at the 2004 Games in Athens.
Jones already made history in 2006 as the first Black swimmer to share or hold a world record when he swam a leg of the 400m freestyle relay at the Pan Pacific Championships. Now he’s made an even greater name for himself - a remarkable accomplishment considering where he came from to get here.
At age five, Jones nearly drowned at a water park but that experience led him to start swimming full-time. For years, he and his parents - who he credits as his biggest inspiration - woke up early to attend practices at 5:30 a.m. It was those moments that he reflected on after the race.
“They saw how much I loved [swimming] and I guess it paid off,” Jones said with a smile.
He’s also anxious to use his gold medal to help further his commitment to help more Blacks and Latinos embrace swimming to save lives. A study done by the University of Memphis and USA Swimming this year showed that 58 percent of Black children (56 percent for Latino children) could not swim.
Knowing that he could have easily been another statistic had he drowned, Jones has been an advocate for helping reverse that trend and now he’ll have an even bigger platform to work from.
“I can’t make a movement without getting a little hardware at the Olympics so I have to put my money where my mouth is,” he said.
So yes, this was perhaps the greatest relay of all time but while the shine will be on Phelps’ quest for history, don’t forget to give Jones his due for making his mark and the potential impact of helping more Blacks embrace swimming.
So what was more impressive? The men’s team routing China 101-70 in front of the largest TV audience ever to see a game (close to a billion) or the women’s team going on a 23-0 run against China in the first quarter of their 108-63 victory.
Former Morningside High School and USC forward Tina Thompson led the way with 13 points in that run and finished with 27 points in the win. Lisa Leslie had a double-double with 10 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
On the men’s side, they faced Angola on Tuesday but of course folks won’t be happy until they win the gold medal and beat every team by double digits - a nice dream but that dream was burst eight years ago when they came within a three-pointer of losing at the 2000 Sydney Games.
American fans have to understand that against the better teams, the U.S. will not coast to easy wins. That’s not a knock on them, that’s a tribute to great teams like Argentina, Greece and Spain who will challenge the Americans and as a fan of basketball, I’d rather see competitive games than blowouts.
Hitting the track
This weekend starts the beginning of track-and-field and there will be many stories to watch. Will Allyson Felix get her gold medal in the 200 meters? Who will win the star-studded 100-meter dash: Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell or world-record holder Usain Bolt? Can LaShawn Merritt repeat his Olympic trials upset over reigning gold medalist Jeremy Wariner in the 400?
All this and more will unfold in the coming week so stay tuned to see if the American delegation can fulfill their promise as one of the strongest track-and-field teams in recent memory.
Serena and Venus Williams are still on track to meet in Saturday’s singles final, while James Blake advanced to the quarterfinals after winning on Tuesday.