Jones attended North Carolina State University, where he was an English major with a minor in psychology. He turned professional in the summer of 2006, after signing with Nike and burst onto the scene shortly after at the 2006 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships where he set a meet record in the 50 m freestyle with a time of 21.84. He also swam a leg (split of 47.96) in the world record breaking 4×100 m freestyle relay along with Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale.
In 2007, he also won a gold medal in 4×100 m freestyle relay with the same teammates in 2007 World Aquatics Championships
Jones broke the American record in the 50 meter freestyle with a time of 21.59. The record was subsequently broken the next day by Garrett Weber-Gale. In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, he won a gold medal in the 4×100 m freestyle relay in a world record time of 3:08.24 with Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale.
In July 2009, Jones set the American record in the 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. National Championships in Indianapolis, IN.
He trains with David Marsh at the Center of Excellence at Mecklenburg Aquatic Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.Swimming is not a black sport, often not even a pastime. At 5, Jones almost drowned at a water park — he flipped forward in his inner tube at the end of a water slide; full resuscitation required — because he didn’t know how to swim. Jones’s mother, Debra, immediately enrolled her son in swim lessons. But in middle school, when he started beating white kids at New Jersey swim meets, parents started muttering in his direction, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?” Jones, who now stands 6-foot-5, heard this at home, too. His father, Ron, loved basketball and played on his community-college team. “He was a center who played like a point guard,” Jones said. “Deadly.” He could sink jump shots from half court. He wanted badly for his son to follow in his hightops. He didn’t let go of that dream until 2000, when he learned that he had lung cancer. “After that, he never missed a swim practice,” Jones told me. His father died later that year, well before Jones would break the American record in the 50-meter freestyle and win a gold medal in the 400-meter relay with Phelps. Swimmers are big on tattoos — so much exposed skin. Jones had “41,” his father’s basketball jersey number, inked on his back.
Had Jones’s father lived, he would have been justified in lobbying against a sport that combines so much pain and boredom with so little glory and margin for error. The 50-meter freestyle is a 21-second race. Jones practices a big, vaulting freestyle technique that requires twin discomforts: hyperextending the shoulder joint to create more length and power and not taking a single breath. (“I’m kind of pansy about breathing,” Jones admits.) This week, Jones will race in the biggest event of the year, the FINA World Championships, in Shanghai. He’s the fastest American ever at 50 meters, but he has also choked at a couple of key moments. In 2004, in Jones’s first Olympic trials, Gary Hall Jr., holder of eight Olympic medals at the time, strutted out to the pool deck in boxing attire; he psyched Jones out, causing him to swim poorly and not qualify. Four years later, at the 2008 Olympic trials, Hall’s antics messed with Jones’s head again. One day after Jones broke the American record in the 50-free preliminaries, Hall appeared before the finals in a satin boxing robe, and Jones says, “It took me off my game.” He didn’t swim well and again didn’t qualify (neither did Hall). “Afterward I was curled up in the fetal position in my hotel room, crying. I couldn’t believe that I’d trained so hard. Not to be ready in that moment just killed me.” After the 2008 Games, Jones took four months off. When he returned, he worked with a sports psychologist on mental preparation. “That’s the biggest hurdle for me, how to psych myself up. I still have slip-ups.”
To prepare for this week’s World Championships — which are themselves preparation for the 2012 Olympics — Jones swam last month at the Santa Clara International Grand Prix. Apart from having spectacular bodies, the best swimmers in the country lead lives that are less glamorous than you might think. Many are postcollege, in their mid-20s, with stressful, modest sponsorships that pay in part based on performance. Jones has more stability — and a B.M.W. — thanks to corporate sponsors, including Nike, that clearly see the market appeal of the handsome black swimmer. He also works with the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative. Who better than Jones to connect with minority children, who drown at higher rates then white children, and teach them to swim?
In Santa Clara, Jones stripped down to a Mondrian-patterned practice suit and warmed up next to Phelps. Phelps, of course, exists on a different plane, one that includes two security guards to fend off the Sharpie-wielding children thrusting swim caps at him to sign.
Jones’s agent hopes, as agents do, that Jones, too, will eventually rise above his swimming peers, that he’ll win big in the 2012 Olympics and become not just the unexpected brother on Phelps’s team but a cultural hero like Serena or Venus Williams or Tiger Woods, the black champion of a white sport. But Jones doesn’t think that grandly, not before a race. “Baby steps,” he told me, toweling off from his warm-up. “I just try to beat the guys in my heat.”
Elizabeth Weil is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her book "No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage, Then I Tried to Make It Better" will be published in February.