Swimming was her doctor’s suggestion for therapy purposes after being diagnosed with scoliosis at age seven. Maritza Correia later made history as the first Black female swimmer to break an American swim record, as well as the first Black woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team.
Correia, born in Puerto Rico but raised in Florida, was honored in 2009 by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Sports Task Force as a Sam Lacy Pioneer Award winner. She has been active as an advocate for Blacks to swim, traveling around the country as a USA Swimming spokesperson and encouraging and working with young Blacks in swimming since her retirement in 2007. She retired due to arthritis in her right shoulder and rotator cuff problems in both shoulders.
Swimming advocates note that around 70 percent of Black children in the U.S. do not know how to swim. During a MSR phone interview, “You are not going to see an immediate impact at the beginning but it is going to be a gradual process,” states Correia, now Maritza McClendon since 2010 when she married Chad McClendon. “We’re definitely heading in the right direction.”
McClendon quickly recognized that the fear factor that often exists among Black youngsters or even their parents can be an obstacle. “We work very closely with them because we know they have a little fear. We don’t just throw them right into the water. I think that fear factor is going to be there for a little while,” she points out.
Once the fear is overcome, Blacks will enjoy swimming, using it both for recreation, health and fitness reasons, says McClendon. The goal is not recruiting future Olympians “but to learn how to swim…so they can save their life,” she says.
“I got into swimming because I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis and my doctor recommended swimming,” recalls McClendon. “When I first started, I wasn’t a great swimmer but I had a good time and loved being in the water. I got a little bit better as the years went on.”
“I started to get that dream to be an Olympian” after watching the 1996 Olympics, remembers McClendon, who became one of Florida’s top swimmers and won her state 100-meter freestyle title four times and made the 1997 national junior swim team.
McClendon became the U.S. 50-meter freestyle champion in her senior year, and matriculated to the University of Georgia where she graduated with a sociology degree in 2005, becoming a 27-time All-American and an 11-time NCAA champion and set numerous records, as well. On February 12, 2016, she was one of four athletes formally inducted into the University of Georgia’s Circle of Honor.
She didn’t make the 2000 U.S. Olympic swim team, but McClendon won a gold and silver medal at the 2001 World Championships, set two records at the 2002 Women’s NCAA Championships, where she became the first Black woman to set an American record, and won another gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay at the 2003 World Championships.
McClendon later made history when she made the 2004 U.S. Olympic swim team. As a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay team, she helped this country win a silver medal at the Athens Summer Games. She followed that with a four-gold medal winning performance at the 2005 World University Games.
Despite pain issues, McClendon took home gold in two events at the 2007 Pan American Games, and her last competitive event was in December of that year at the USA Nationals before retiring from swimming.
“When I made history in 2004 as the [first] African American on the team, I didn’t want it to stop there. I always wanted to give back to the community,” notes McClendon.
As a result, being a swimming ambassador, along with being a wife and mother of two children is more than she had imagined, but McClendon is proud that she can give back.
“This is exactly what I wanted to do…to get more kids into the water,” she concludes. “I definitely want people to see that I am more than just an Olympian, [that] I am trying to make a difference in the community. I give back as much as I can.”
Follow Maritza McClendon on Twitter at @ritzyswims04.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.