By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Maritza McClendon is beaming, and she just can’t help it. It’s not just her beautiful kids or wonderful husband or fulfilling job as (and recent promotion to) Senior Marketing Manager at Nike Swim, it’s that the trail she helped pave drew more attention earlier this month as three African-American women – Simone Manuel, Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds – swept the podium in the 100 free at NCAAs. She talks about making history, what history she hopes is written in the near future, and how swimming has become a leader in diversity, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. To be the first black woman to set records and also a silver medal winning Olympian, in 2004, did you think the “next one” or many, would have followed you faster?
Maritza: I always knew it was going to take some time to expand, from where I started. So I think it’s just a natural progression.
2. Though many of us regard you as the trailblazer, you still point to others before you in the sport, even if they did not set records or make Olympic teams, right?
Maritza: We had so many before me. And then I knew with me, that I had gotten to the highest point but that there are higher goals to reach. Those girls who we saw do something special at NCAAs are so amazing. It’s fun to see it.
3. You were off the charts with your excitement, weren’t you?
Maritza: I totally was so excited. I didn’t get to see the results that night after work and everything. I remember waking up and going downstairs to make coffee and thinking, “I need to check NCAA and see how they did.” I was amazed
4. Just a breathtaking podium isn’t it?
Maritza: Simone, to win like that, is amazing, and just as amazing for Lia and for Natalie to be at the top with her. I had the biggest, geekiest smile on my face. My eyes got teary. I can’t even tell you how it felt. “Surreal” best describes it.
5. That Simone won, or all three being on the podium?
Maritza: I knew there would be another black woman to win at NCAAs a long time ago, and then maybe two, but to have three at the same time up there, that’s what is so incredible and shows how far we have come – and that there are no limits if you work hard and smart, and get the coaching you need.
6. And yet you see more reason for optimism in the future – even the near future, correct?
Maritza: Oh, totally. I am still so excited. This is just a starting point for them. To have it happen in 2015, right before the Olympic Trials? That is incredible! I am excited we can even say there’s a chance we could have three black girls on an Olympic relay – and an Olympic podium? How does it sound to say that? To think about that being possible? Especially since the U.S. always has strong relays – I am super excited to see the possibilities there.
7. You know, I think everyone is pumped for Trials and Rio, but having been to so many NCAAs and knowing how crazy it is, and all the swims, what does it say about the randomness of the meet that these three young women were able to pull it all together in arguably one of the most competitive, hotly contested races to win the podium?
Maritza: And I think that’s the coolest part about college swimming – that anyone who rises up can win first place. Things are so unpredictable. Every race has these special moments where something amazing happens. These three young women were ready for that opportunity.
8. And that’s what this is about, isn’t it?
Maritza: That’s actually what happened in this event – all three of these girls were shooting to be number 1, and believed they could win. Simone was the favorite, but all three had the chance to finish on the podium, and to win. What they did is absolutely amazing.
9. What’s it like knowing all three on a personal level?
Maritza: I am definitely impressed by all three of these women. I have known Simone for a long time, and you just hear her speak and it’s so impressive the way she can articulate any point. I have known Lia and see how far she came to make the Olympic team and how well she handled herself and the challenge. And I have gotten to know Natalie too and watched her improvement to reach the top level, and her commitment. All three of these young women are so well spoken, and I am just so proud of them, watching them continue to put their best foot forward.
10. You are the one who helped open this door, does that mean a lot?
Maritza: There were a lot of others. And I think that’s how it is with every sport. You have a person who kind of breaks the ice a little bit, some others come up and shatter the remaining parts that are still in the way and that creates open spaces, which are opportunities for dreams to come true.
11. You are more comfortable in this role now than before it seems, is that right?
Maritza: I think I am now more than before. Like I said, I don’t know…I am really proud of what I have done, and that I continue to be a role model, but I am also grateful that I have a place to share my passion for sport, and encourage young athletes to be the best they can be. That people still come up to me for a picture or an autograph still amazes me, it’s still surreal. That morning after NCAAs when this grew huge on the Internet, to see myself tagged in posts on Facebook and on Twitter – that was just awesome! That I would get such praise just amazed and humbled me. But it was (laughs) also pretty awesome to be included in what these young women did – their historical feat.
12. Man, what would happen in Rio if they are on that relay and they medal?
Maritza: If I am in Rio for that, I will jump over that rail and give them the hugest hug.
13. Other sports struggle with diversity, but you look at swimming, and diversity seems to be embraced – does word get around enough about that?
Maritza: I definitely think there is still a lot of negativity in some ways around diversity because of what has happened in the news here and around the world. So I’d also like point out that what Simone, Lia and Natalie did at NCAAs still has not gotten the attention from the media it deserved – outside of swimming, this feat has not gotten the attention it deserved. Yet in other sports, even football, track and gymnastics, though there are others, when barriers are broken it’s all over national news repeatedly. And we have gotten maybe a couple of mentions here and there. Maybe next year will bring a platform where this gets the attention it warrants, but that has been frustrating.
14. USA Swimming has really been going hard on diversity, what do you make of that?
Maritza: I think that is a very accurate statement. USA Swimming has made an effort to increase diversity outreach. They have done the Swim 1922 (Sigma Gamma Rho) partnerships, and they are keying on diversity and having someone who handles that – I think they are making an outreach to the black and Hispanic communities and it is working.
15. Wasn’t, in addition to everything else, that 100 free at NCAAs, just as exciting as it gets as a race?
Maritza: It really was, and I think because it was totally unexpected – even with the favorites and a couple of them being top seeds, you never know what happens at NCAAs. But swimming has made a lot of strides to be diverse in the water, and having been involved with it, you expect and hope for this to happen. Anthony Ervin was the first to make the Olympic team in 2000, and then there was me as the first female, and Cullen Jones kept it going. So it’s a progression.
16. And to have three is something that should garner attention, right?
Maritza: Oh yes, definitely, and to have three this year at NCAAs was a big thing. When I was there in college, there were always two of us at the most. Always two at different times, but never three. Four this year if you count the young woman (Farida Osman, born in Indiana and competes for Cal) from Egypt, which made half the final of African descent.
17. So will diversity continue, or is it now as we speak?
Maritza: Honestly, it’s increasing on all levels. I go to local meets and I guarantee you that I see far more African Americans and Hispanics than before. What we’ve done with Sigma Gamma Rho is go into the communities that didn’t have a lot of information about swimming, and they have become fans, and that has led to more involvement in swimming, and they have also become bigger fans of the sport and follow it. We have really expanded swimming’s outreach in this community.
18. Simone told me how she had researched, as a pre-teen, black women in the sport – what does that mean to you to hear that?
Maritza: I actually kind of knew about when it was happening! I was so proud. Her incredible club coach, Allison Beebe had reached out to us in 2008, right when I first started at Nike Swim… Allison was one of our Nike coaches and said, “Hey, I have this swimmer who is black and she wants to learn about the history of the sport. I think she’s going to be fantastic and I told her about you.” So I kind of new about that from way back when, that Simone was curious and quite a thinker. We email back and forth. I always kept an eye on her. She’s always laughing and smiling, but when she swims, she is always focused and it’s game on. Having met her mother, I am not at all surprised how she ended up such an incredible young woman.
19. And you have known Lia and Natalie for a while as well right?
Maritza: They are just outstanding young women as well. I think Lia has this innocent personality, where she’s kind of quiet, yet she gets along with everybody. And she has this very funny personality. So you get swept up in thinking she’s quiet, and then this huge personality comes out. I heard about how she just stole the show at the skits the new team members put on for the Olympic team in 2012. Another amazing young woman who is super smart – she’s a good fit at Stanford, and on a mission to be a two-time Olympian. Natalie Hinds is another outstanding young person the world is starting to learn a lot about. When we were in Irvine last year (Phillips 66 Nationals), I was sitting with my sorority sister Secenario Jones, and she asked, “Who is that girl over there?” I told her that was Natalie Hinds who is from Midland, Texas, and swims for the University of Florida. She hopped up and did a 100 free and she just looked so amazing in the water. She’s at a fantastic college program where there are strong athletes in all the events. She is one to look out for, and she really started coming onto the scene even more last year.
20. You mentioned the timing this year, and swimming still riding the crest it’s been on since maybe 2000 or 2004 when Michael Phelps helped push it to the forefront in ways never before seen – so pretty good timing?
Maritza: Oh yes, I think so. Even with 2016 coming up, it seems like swimming is more popular than ever. The black communities we have reached out to are following swimming, especially at meets and in social media, like never before, and that will only increase in the coming year. These are positive young role models they are seeing, young women who will inspire them moving forward – and we’ll also get more people in the pool. So we are at a tipping point as far as interest in the sport, and that is so exciting – sure Anthony, me and Cullen did something special. And Dax Hill (University of Texas), Giles Smith (University of Arizona), Cullen Jones, Anthony Ervin, to name just a few. So what you saw at NCAAs…these three girls are more than the tip of the iceberg; they have shattered the iceberg, and this is where the flood begins. Pick one to follow, they are all so fantastic.