How Olympian Maritza Correia McClendon is lifting up communities of color

Swimming is the only Olympic sport that can save your life, and thanks to Martiza Correia McClendon, for Black girls growing up, it’s also a veritable way to change the trajectory of your life.

With an astounding list of accomplishments, the swimming prodigy and Olympic Silver Medalist has been titled: the first African American woman to make a US Olympic swim team and medal; the first Black person to break a world record; and the first African American female to break an American record. 

Those accolades alone, and almost too many more to list, make Martiza the foremost trailblazer in swimming for Black women and girls. 

However, her post-athletic professional career has proven equally exciting. Maritza travels around the country sharing her story, curbing perceptions about swimming in communities of color, and serving as an inspiration for girls who dream of taking the international stage.

We caught up with Maritza to talk about her Caribbean heritage, navigating obstacles in her career, her mission to educate Black and Brown communities about swimming, and advice for women facing obstacles in the way of their own aspirations. 

We know you have a very dynamic and multifaceted relationship with the Caribbean. Please explain how you are linked to the region. 

Maritza: Both of my parents and both sets of grandparents are from Guyana. I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My brothers were born in England, Jamaica, and Venezuela. I grew up eating lots of yummy West Indian food.

While growing up, over the course of your swimming career and even in more recent years, has your heritage presented challenges for you? If so, how did you manage to overcome them?

Maritza: I would say the color of my skin has definitely presented challenges, as I was always one of the few on the pool deck and not always welcomed by all. At the end of the day, I loved to swim, I loved to compete, and I wanted to be an Olympian. I’ve always been faced with challenges, and I’ve always had a tough mentality to push through when things got rough. 

What was a major personal obstacle you had to conquer along your journey, and how did you do it?

Maritza: I had to overcome my lack of confidence in myself. I dealt with a lot of pressure from all angles. My dad was tough on me, the media was relentless, and I always expected more from myself. When I didn’t make the Olympic team in 2000, it felt like everything came crashing down on me. I went through depression, got professional help, and learned to do things differently, in a way that worked for me. Meaning, what works for others, doesn’t necessarily work for me. I liked to learn from the best/from leaders and see what worked for them, and try to figure out how it could work for me. I also had to make sure I was swimming for myself and not to please others. Four years later, I made the Olympic team and my dream came true. 

We see you are using your voice to help bring more Black and Brown children, particularly girls, into swimming. How are you doing this work, and what are your personal goals on this mission?

Maritza: When I made the Olympic team in 2004, 70% of Black kids and 60% of Hispanic kids didn’t know how to swim. Today those numbers have gone down to 64% and 45% respectively. I have been passionate about making sure communities of color understand the importance of learning to swim. My platform and mission has been to educate on the importance of learning to swim, introduce people of color to the sport of swimming, and inspire those who look like me to dream big and consider competitive swimming as a sport for them to succeed in. I’ve been the spokesperson for Swim 1922, an initiative that evolved through the partnership between USA Swimming and Sigma Gamma Rho. This initiative is geared toward making sure our Black families understand the importance of learning to swim. We host swim clinics all across the country and support the journey of learning to swim through clinics, funding, and special events every year.

If you could send one message to young Black women who are facing barriers to entry in any arena that they are dreaming of getting into, what would that message be?

Maritza: Dream big and never let anyone tell you, you can’t do something. Let your gift shine for the world to see. If someone/something is standing in your way, know you are powerful and can rise above.

Is there anything new coming up for you we can look forward to?

Maritza: Sigma Gamma Rho is not only celebrating 100 years since the inception of the sorority, but we are celebrating ten years since the first clinic for Swim 1922. We are going to be making waves all summer, and I’m super excited to share the impact we have made over the last 10 years and the impact we are committed to making for many years to come. The main event will be Indianapolis, IN this summer. 

Visit Maritza Correia McClendon online: www.maritzamcclendon.com  

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