LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 25: U.S. Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones attends Citi's Signature Step event at USA House on July 25, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Citi)
LONDON - When Cullen Jones was 5, he nearly drowned in a water-slide accident.
Twenty three years later, he's swimming in his second Olympics. He'll be competing in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events this week at the London Aquatics Centre.
"I almost drowned and now I'm an Olympic swimmer," Jones said, chuckling. "I can definitely appreciate irony."
The childhood incident led to swim lessons. Now 28, Jones works with children and USA Swimming Foundation's "Make A Splash" campaign, which encourages youths to learn to swim.
Jones' increased exposure at these Games will only help the effort.
After winning gold as a part of the men's 4x100 freestyle relay team in the Beijing Games, Jones is back on the Olympic blocks. He swam the third leg of the 4x100 free relay Sunday night, helping USA win a silver medal. But that's where the similarities with 2008 end.
Jones will compete in Olympic individual events for the first time. The men's 100 free final is Wednesday night, and the 50 free final is Friday.
"The amount of pressure that's put on me is a lot more than in 2008," Jones said. "It's a lot more meaningful. ... I know that people are expecting me to step up and do my part.
"I love being on the relays, but being in an individual event just (means) so much to me."
Jones qualified for the 100 free behind Nathan Adrian at trials last month, and he won the 50 free in qualifying ahead of a Anthony Ervin, who won gold in Sydney in 2000 and then abruptly retired from swimming.
"Cullen's always been a fast guy - he's just never really put it all together at the right time," U.S. men's coach Gregg Troy said prior to the Games. "He put it together at the right time at our trials.
"He's got tremendous skills. He's a guy we need to swim well."
In both freestyle events, the Americans' greatest challenger to gold will be Australia's James Magnussen, the world's top 100 freestyler. Magnussen, 21, also recently clocked a 21.74 at Australia's 50 free trials, the fastest of any Australian has been since the high-tech suits left the sport.
Both Jones (21.59) and Ervin (21.60) beat that time at U.S. trials last month to punch their tickets to London. There's a strategy to the 50 free, Jones said, even though "it just looks like splashing."
Jones said the 50 free - swimming's equivalent to track's 100-meter dash - attracts an unusual kind of swimmer.
"It's got a lot of personality," Jones said. "You've got a lot of different people, a lot of testosterone going on with all the guys, who's going to win, who's going to beat who. I love that part about it. That's when I can really have that mentality of, 'I can't be beaten.' I just keep telling myself that."
As Jones goes through these Games adjusting to the competition and higher expectations, he said he's focused on improving in each heat.
"What my coach said was, 'The greatest part about your trials is you got better and better and better. Your prelims, semis, finals. Now that you're at the Olympics, this is your fourth swim. Put all of that together and make it a perfect race,' " Jones said.
"When it comes to the 50, 100 and relays, that's my mentality."
Nicole Auerbach, USA TODAY