Making History: Black Women in Swimming
In honor of Black History Month and in celebration of our collective swimming history, USA Swimming salutes swimming athletes who have made history for the sport and for the African American community. These women exemplify the championship spirit that the sport of swimming breeds and also serve as role models for all swimmers.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, Enith Brigitha from Curacao Antilles, swimming for the Netherlands, won bronze in both the 100 and 200 Free to become the first person of African descent to win an Olympic medal in swimming.
Finishing behind two East German swimmers, Kornelia Ender and Petra Priemer, controversy surrounded her loss as evidence of heavy doping by East German athletes was uncovered in the 1990’s. To date, no East German medals have been stripped or reissued after the evidence surfaced but many people credit Brigitha with an unofficial gold.
After retiring from swimming a few years after the ’76 Olympics, Brigitha went on to open a swimming school in Curacao.
Alison Terry has come as close as anyone to reaching the Olympics. Growing from a promising high schoolswimmer, Terry postponed college for a year to make an attempt at history and earn a spot on the 1992 Olympic Team and a trip to the games in Barcelona, Spain. Unfortunately, she would not make the team.
Later, Terry accepted a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee and following her freshman year, she left Knoxville and returned to California where she stopped swimming. Five years later however, Terry would return to the pool making a great comeback by winning her first international medal in the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay during the World University Games.
At the 2000 Olympic Trials, she just missed making the final of the 50 freestyle by two-hundredths of a second, thus ending her bid to become the first African-American female to represent the United States at the Olympics. Terry would still have an opportunity to make history, doing so when she became the first African American elected to the USA Swimming Board of Directors.
Leading up to the Trials, Terry engaged the media in as much publicity as possible to raise awareness about the lack of opportunities for African-American communities. And even though her Olympic dream ended, she continued her crusade to increase diversity throughout the swimming community. Terry began implementing swimming programs in San Diego’s inner-city schools, educating elementary school students on beach safety and assisting in lesson programs.
In 2000, with encouragement from Terry, along with her husband and mother, San Diego officials agreed to keep inner-city pools open year-round for the first time. In 2005, Terry was honored alongside sports heroes Muhammad Ali and Magic Johnson, in addition to Olympian Larsen Jensen, at the Aquatic Foundation of Metropolitan Los Angeles.
Nicknamed Ritz, Maritza Correia qualified for the USA Olympic Team in 2004, becoming the first Puerto Rican of African descent to be on the USA Olympic Swimming Team. She also became the first African-American swimmer from the United States to set an American and world swimming record.
After being diagnosed with severe scoliosis in 1988, Correia took up swimming as a treatment, and her future as one of the most decorated NCAA swimmers in history was set. Correia was a six-time Florida high school champion in five different events, and she left the University of Georgia as a 27-time All-American.
Correia cut her international competition teeth as a member of the 1997 USA National Junior Team that competed in Sweden and the 1999 USA Short Course World Championship Team that competed in Hong Kong.
In 2001, she won a gold medal in the 800m freestyle and two relay bronze medals as a member of the U.S. World Championship Team in Japan. Two years later, Correia earned a gold medal swimming in prelims of the 400m free relay at the World Championships, and in 2004, she earned an Olympic silver medal swimming prelims of the 400m free relay at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Since 2013, Correia has been the spokeswoman for the Swim 1922 partnership between USA Swimming and traditionally black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho of which Correia is also a member. Through Swim 1922, Correia works with both organizations to increase swim participation in the black community.
In 2014, Correia was inducted into the University of Georgia’s Swimming Hall of Fame.
In 2012, 17 year-old Lia Neal, of Brooklyn, New York became the second African American woman to make the US Olympic Team and earn a medal, winning a bronze in the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay.
Neal was eight years-old when she was awarded a Swim for the Future scholarship, giving her the opportunity to join Asphalt Green’s competitive AGUA swim team. The scholarship was established in 2001 in honor of two Asphalt Green swimmers who died on September 11, 2001.
Following fellow history maker, Cullen Jones onto the team, and preceding Anthony Ervin’s spot, Neal was part of the most diverse Olympic Team to-date. Neal, who is half black and half Chinese, also captured some history for Chinese Americans along with fellow swim star, Nathan Adrian who is half white and half Chinese.
Neal has since accepted a scholarship to Stanford where she is currently a seven-time All American with four Stanford swimming records under her belt.
2016 Rio Olympic prospect Simone Manuel of Sugarland, Texas continues to set the stage for a phenomenal swimming career. Manuel is probably best known for anchoring Team USA’s tie-breaking 200-meter mixed medley relay to victory at the 2013 Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool in Glasgow, Scotland.
Known as a powerful and gutsy no-limits swimmer, Manuel has been on the swim community’s radar since her senior national 50 free where she broke National Age Group Records on her 17th birthday. Her 50 free swim was the fastest 17-18 year old time and the second-fastest American time in history.
A member of the 2014-2015 U.S. National Team, Manuel won the 50-meter free and was second in the 100-meter free at the 2014 Phillips 66 Nationals to earn a spot on the Pan Pacific Championship roster. During Pan Pacs, she finished second as part of both the 40-meter free relay and the 400-meter medley relays and finished 3rd in the 100-meter free.
Outside of the pool, Manuel has been active within the governance of USA Swimming, serving as an athlete representative of the diversity and inclusion committee in 2013.
Jamaican Olympia Alia Atkinson was catapulted into swimming stardom with her history-making swim at the 2014 Short Course World Championships in Doha, Qatar where she won the 100-meter breaststroke, equaling the world record set by Ruta Meilutyte, and becoming the first black woman to win a world swimming title.
Atkinson competed in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games for Jamaica in breaststroke events, placing 4th in the finals of the women's 100-meter breaststroke finishing with a time of 1:06.93 in 2012. She also competed in the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where she set the Jamaican Record in the 100 fly. She has been a regular on the Commonwealth Games scene since 2006 and during college at Texas A&M, she won the 2010 NCAA title in the 200 breaststroke.
As am ambassador for diversity and inclusion in the sport, Atkinson has been active with the International Swimming Hall of Fame, working to promote swimming to youth from different communities. Additionally, Atkinson became a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority in 2014, and has been active in advancing the message of increasing swim participation among African Americans.