The following article was written by Evan Lasseter for OnlineAthens.com. To view the original article, click here.
Maritza Correia McClendon’s first swim teacher taught from a backyard pool.
Hand-placed ropes formed lane lines to resemble a competitive pool. At the end of one summer of lessons, the teacher held race relays with a group of kids.
When McClendon finished her lap, her team was in first. But the girl set to swim behind her wouldn’t jump in. McClendon grabbed the girl and pushed her in the pool.
“I was so excited that we were winning, and granted a mom was not happy that I pushed another 6-year-old in the water at the time,” McClendon said. “But at the same time she’s like ‘okay she is competitive, she likes swimming, let’s do a little bit more research and get her involved in a bigger way.’”
The young swimmer joined a club swimming team in south Florida. Her talent, and love to race was immediately evident to club coach Peter Banks. McClendon experienced success throughout her youth swimming career, competing successfully in events such as the Junior Olympics and Junior Nationals.
When the time came she chose the college route, landing at the University of Georgia as the school’s first Black female swimmer in 1999. As a Bulldog McClendon won 11 NCAA titles and was a 27-time All American.
She also won an SEC title in every freestyle event at some point of her career. That included the 50 M, 100 M, 200 M, 500 M and 1650 M races.
After her decorated career at UGA, she became the first Black female swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic team in 2004. The feat came after failing to make the team in 2000 when she was still at UGA.
“Nine out of ten other people would have just said ‘well I tried and didn’t make it’ and moved on, and she wasn’t willing to do that,” Banks said. “I mean that, and then come back and commit to training and commit to all the things that she had to do to try and make that team in 2004 was just, I felt it was remarkable for her as a person and then as an athlete.”
Beyond being a fast and distinguished swimmer, McClendon is a barrier-breaker in her sport, one with a classist and racist past that barred Black Americans from access to swimming pools during segregation.
When she made the Olympic team she remembered a reporter asking her what it felt like to be the first Black female to make the team. McClendon remembered saying she was proud to be the first, but didn’t want to be the last.
“That was a moment in my career where I really committed to giving it all I had to be the best athlete possible, but also remember the next generation and be an inspiration to them,” McClendon said.
Now, McClendon is using her platform to advance the sport in communities of color. She is a spokesperson for Swim 1992, a USA Swimming Program devoted to teaching African Americans and other minorities how to swim. She is also a chairperson for the USA Swimming Black Leadership in Aquatics Coalition (Team BLAC).
McClendon’s work is aimed at expanding diversity in a sport still severely lacking members from minority communities. In 2019, just 1% of Division I female swimmers were Black, a total of 71, according to the NCAA Demographics database. For men the total was 72, just 2% of all Division I swimmers.
McClendon said racist comments and microaggressions started in youth swimming, where the majority of swimmers at meets were white. At one club meet as a kid, a white mom walked up to her and asked “why are you on the pool deck,” McClendon said.
Michael Norment, a former UGA swimmer and current assistant swim coach at Georgia Tech, is the only Black coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference as of 2019. He is one of nine Black swimming coaches in Division I.
Norment grew up at a predominantly Black swimming club in New York, and when he arrived at a predominantly Black team at UGA he said it was “culture shock.” Even during his experience on his team in New York, he would see Black swimmers at predominantly white clubs be constrained to only 50 M freestyle events.
Both Norment and McClendon rose in swimming during the 1990s, swimming in college during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The continued lack of diversity in the highest levels of swimming highlights a need for McClendon’s work.
“What I love about Maritza is that she’s taken that opportunity and stepped into that role,” Norment said. “I think especially as an African American swimmer in a non-traditional sport we don’t take it for granted. The talks that we have, and how we spend our time trying to connect to a group of kids we are trying to grow within the sport, it’s a big deal.”
McClendon’s former coaches and friends recognize her as an ambassador for the sport. At her first “major” clinic with Swim 1992, a partnership between USA Swimming and Sigma Gamma Rho, McClendon’s sorority, she asked a crowd of around 1,000 Black women to raise their hand if they couldn’t swim.
Nearly the entire crowd lifted their arms, McClendon said.
At that moment she knew it was an initiative to be a part of. McClendon described the clinics as “Black events” with discussions and then a pool component. Through her work she feels like the initiative has “really shifted the mindset” when it comes to swimming.
When the initiative launched in 2012, studies indicated that around 70% of African Americans didn’t know how to swim. That number has dropped to the mid-sixties, McClendon said.
“Here we are nine years later, I bet you I could walk into that same room of those same 1000 women and we would have a major decrease in how many people raised their hands,” McClendon said. “People have actually gone on to have formal swim lessons, to host community events around swimming and water safety even without me there.”
The qualities that made McClendon one of the nation’s best swimmers have also made her one of the sport’s ambassadors.
Christopher Montella, one of McClendon’s mentors, met her when he was the vice president of marketing for Nike Swim. Instantly Montella saw that she was “all business,” and passionately devoted to achieving the goals she laid out for herself.
The drive that started as a kid willing to win a summer relay at all costs, then propelled her to youth success and her eventual barrier breaking successes stayed the same. Using the sport to better herself and others.
“She’s a force of nature,” Montella said. “Once she puts her mind to something, it’s going to happen. And I see that in her career today.”