By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Back in 2002, Maritza McClendon became the first African American to set an American record, swimming the 50 freestyle in 21.69 (yards) at the NCAA Championships. It was a great accomplishment for the talented swimmer who originally hailed from Puerto Rico. She later won an Olympic gold in the preliminaries of the 4x100 freestyle at the Athens Olympic Games.
As part of Black History Month, we talk with Maritza about diversity in swimming in the United States, what efforts she thinks can be done to improve the outreach to African American communities, and what are some of the problems (and solutions) to getting African American females in the pool.
Growing up, what was your experience like in swimming?
Well, when we first moved to Florida, I was 9 years old. That’s when I joined the Blue Wave swim team. When we joined, there was one other black swimmer on the team besides me and my brother. It was scarce. We were the only ones there. Growing up, our parents didn’t want to make it a big deal that we were the only African Americans on the team or at meets. It didn’t affect us, but we tried to be like the rest of them. We practiced like everyone else. Keep it as normal.
When you’re so young, at 9 years old, you just see a whole bunch of friends to hang out with. When I started getting to Senior Nationals, seeing the older kids, I didn’t see anyone else like me. My brother noticed it more than I did. He got more comments from parents, “Why are you guys swimming? You should be doing basketball.” Parents would make little sly comments.
You were the first black American woman to set an American and world record. What did that mean to you at the time, and what does that mean to you now?
At the time when I did it, I wasn’t really swimming to break those records. I was swimming to get a best time, and it happened to be the swim of my life. When I hit the wall, it was awesome. When I broke the American record in the 50 and 100, it was an amazing experience. To walk away and realize it, it makes it that much more special. It put me down in the book forever.
What was growing up in Puerto Rico like?
I loved Puerto Rico. It was awesome. It was very diverse. You see everyone. Black, white, Hispanic, Latino. Down there it was very diverse. I loved it.
Was there a strong swimming community in Puerto Rico?
Swimming was pretty big, but we don’t have too many big named swimmers.
What do you think some of the things we as a swimming base can do to improve our outreach into African American communities?
I think it’s all about finding the right market, target the right areas that need the exposure. A lot of African Americans aren’t exposed to swimming. They have basketball courts and tracks to run on. It’s all about raising the awareness, and bringing others into the community. Bring myself into the community and offer a quick free lesson. Just to give kids basic lifesaving skills. Bring Sabir Muhammad. Byron Davis. People that look like them will make a big, big difference, and someone to relate to them directly. We can say, “There are black swimmers in swimming.”
What do you think are some of the problems getting female black athletes involved with competitive swimming?
I think the biggest thing is the hair. The hair is a big issue. African American hair is a lot different than your typical Caucasian hair. It’s coarse. It’s hard to manage. It breaks easier. Every time I do a clinic and there are African American women there, I hit on the point of, it’s all hair management. It’s tough, but still doable. Wash, condition, put an oil in it. Protect it as much as you can. Take care of it like any other sport. I condition my hair often. I don’t shampoo it every time, but I condition. I put in a moisturizing cream to protect my hair. I do that every time we get out of the water.
Going forward, where do you see the diversity in swimming effort going?
I think right now it’s heading in the right direction. It’s one of those issues where it’s not going to change overnight. It’ll take years to change African Americans’ minds to get into swimming. But it’s making a difference. I’m not swimming competitively right now, but I work for Nike and notice more African American swimmers at meets. It’s going to take a long time to see any drastic change. We just have to stick to it. We’re doing the right thing. I think USA Swimming could do more to bring more African Americans to do clinics. People like Tanica Jamison. Get them involved again.
Are there any young promising minorities on the horizon that could make an impact at the Olympic Trials?
I think Lia Neal. She is doing a great job. She’s swimming fantastic. I love going to Nationals and seeing her doing great. I’m in the front row in the 50 and 100 free. I think she is making great strides. I hope she embraces it. Just not shy away from it. I get the question from it all the time. I could have shied away from being a role model. I hope she knows she is a role model for African Americans coming behind her.
Do you still swim?
I’m still involved with swim clinics. I am still in shape. I have to stay in race shape. I don’t want the kids beating me at the clinics. [Laughs.] And my brother is the head coach at Blue Wave, where we grew up. So I swim in the same pool I swam in when I was a kid, which is wonderful.