This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of SwimSwam magazine. Subscribe here.
Braden Keith, Editor-in-Chief: Tennessee Volunteer sophomore Jordan Crooks turned heads at the 2023 SEC Championships when he ripped a 17.93, making him the only the second man in history to break 18 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle, joining Caeleb Dressel. After a breakout freshman season, Crooks won the World Short Course Championship in December representing his native Cayman Islands, where he won his country’s first-ever World Championship in swimming with a 20.46. At just 20 years old, Crooks has already built a long resume in short course. That has built expectations for a long-course breakthrough at the 2023 World Championships and into the 2024 Olympic Games – a breakout that sometimes comes and other times remains out of reach. But either way, he is one of the most compelling stories in swimming in the next 18 months as the world focuses in on Paris.
I grew up in the most beautiful place on Earth.
When I talk to my friends at college, I try to explain to them exactly what it means to live there, but it’s hard to put into words. It’s things you don’t fully understand, you just experience them.
Actually, I was born in Texas but I spent my entire life in Grand Cayman until last year when I started my studies at the University of Tennessee. Living on a small island surrounded only by an ocean is something different from everything in the rest of the world.
It’s a safe place. In my country we all know each other, and we help each other. It’s as if my family was made up of almost 70,000 people, instead of six, which is already a large family.
I have three siblings, and we all grew up loving sports. Mom used to run track but later retired to open her business. Dad did karate, and even if he is now an old guy he continues to practice and teach it. Throughout his career he has had to face many injuries and difficulties. Karate is a tough sport mentally and physically, and he is always there to fight (no longer on the tatami) every day, without excuses. His behavior motivates me a lot — it is an inspiration for me.
As a child, I wanted to play basketball or soccer. The important thing to me was that there was a ball. I started swimming when I was little — 3 or 4 years old. But when you live on an island, swimming isn’t just a sport, it’s an important thing for your survival. It’s nice to understand from childhood the importance of a sport that can save your life. I joined a team when I was eight, and I did my first national competition when I was 11. For a while I did both swimming and basketball at the same time, and even if basketball is still the sport of my heart, I just decided to give basketball a break and stick with swimming. And, I think, it worked out a little bit better.
After all, I can always watch my beloved Miami Heat on TV.
I was the first in my family to swim seriously, and after me came my little sister Jillian. It is nice to share all this with her. I am very proud of her journey. In 2021 she participated in her first Olympic Games, and it would be nice to leave for Paris together in 2024.
I know my parents are proud of what we’ve been able to do in the last few years, and it means a lot to me because it’s our way of giving back a little bit of everything they’ve given us. To reward them for all the efforts they made when we were younger.
In my country there are three teams, and we have pretty good facilities, even if they are all 25m. I swam yards for the first time when I got to college. To swim in the 50-meter pool, we traveled a lot, attending meets in Florida, Canada or Jamaica.
The 25-meter pool is therefore the one I know the best, and I couldn’t wait to start racing at the World Championships in Melbourne. It was a beautiful championship. I knew I trained well, but I didn’t know exactly how much I could collect. I learned so much in just a few days. I skipped some steps that athletes usually do, and within a week I collected my first world semifinal, first final, and then my first title. What a binge of emotions.
Going into the meeting, I didn’t really set specific goals. I just wanted to do the best I could. And I knew that I had the training. I trusted my coaches and myself. As the meet went on, I got a little bit more confident. The confidence grew and I was able to show what I had.
The 100 free was a tough race. It was the first time I’d experienced being in a final. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to the semifinal. And then I made it. And then I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to the final. And then I made it to the final. My race plan didn’t go exactly according to the way I thought it would, but I’m still happy with the race, just grateful to be able to experience it because a couple of years ago if you told me I was competing for a gold medal in the 100 free, I would have said you’re crazy. That final just gave me a fire leading into the 50. A little bit more motivation. And it paid.
I owe a lot to my country. I wouldn’t be where I am, or even who I am today, if it weren’t for my country. When I saw the Cayman Islands flag flying at the top of the podium at the World Short Course Championships, I got very emotional, not only for me and my family but for all the people watching me from the other side of the world, in the most beautiful place on Earth.