By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Maritza (Correia) McClendon made the news last year as her journey of a pioneer harvested the reward she always hoped for when Simone Manuel won the first Olympic gold by an African-American woman in an individual event (and another, plus two more medals) and Lia Neal repeated as an Olympic medalist, becoming the first African-American to medal in two Olympics. Many know by now, the part of Maritza’s story that picks up after her Olympic medal, or even her incredible career at the University of Georgia. But it goes back further than that, and the time in and around her historic Olympic medal in 2004 includes several other less publicized, but just as incredible, accomplishments, as she addresses in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday celebrating and honoring Black History Month.
1. What will the label on 2016 be for you?Maritza: Oh my goodness. That’s a hard one. “Great change and a new chapter.”
2. Where is your silver medal from Athens?
Maritza: It’s in the cliché spot -- in my sock drawer. Since I do so many clinics I have to keep it handy. But I do so many clinics I have to get it cleaned so others can continue to enjoy it as much as I do!
3. We’re going to go back for a second, people rightly know about your accomplishments as an African American, but you were born in Puerto Rico -- how much does it mean to you to reach such another significant part of the population and inspire a generation there?
Maritza: I think it’s great and I still keep in touch with my friends. The head coach at Puerto Rico, Gretchen Gotay Cordero, we swam against each other when I was in Puerto Rico growing. So we stay in touch. I’ll do a clinic down there in the future -- we’ve been talking about that.
4. Your African American heritage comes via Guyana -- what’s your connection to that culture and how has it shaped you?
Maritza: My grandparents on both sides and parents are from Guyana, it just happened that my parents were in Puerto Rico when I was born. And my brother was born in London. It’s such a blessing to have that reach and maybe inspire people in different areas of the world.
5. We always focus on that one area, which is of course important, but there’s a far wider depth -- and reach -- to your ethnicity, isn’t there?
Maritza: It really warms my heart to be accepted by so many different people who are proud of me. That makes a gal feel good. And it makes me want to work on my Spanish more so I can connect more with the Puerto Rican community, because the Hispanic population in the sport is really climbing and making it better for everyone.
6. From 2003 to 2007, you put together an incredible run. Can you just take us through that real quick starting with 2003 World Championships (Long course) where you won gold?
Maritza: You know, I think it even started before that in 2002 when I broke my first American record in the 50 free. That skyrocketed my level of confidence, and that carried over to the next few years, starting in 2003 at Worlds, where I brought home some hardware.
7. After Athens 2004 you were in top form claiming three golds at WUGs in Izmir, what were those accomplishments like and did you see them coming?
Maritza: I think it was that level of confidence I had that I never knew I could reach. I think being team captain for that trip, I was really on top of the world. I was super excited to be where I was at and was excited to be swimming fast after the Olympics.
8. What was the reception of the US team in Turkey at WUGs in 2005?
Maritza: I think in 2005 they told us to be careful where we go and what we wore but in general everyone wanted to see the American team and what we could do in the water. They still wanted to learn from us and we were well respected. And we appreciated all that goodwill from the swim fans there.
9. Your last hurrah before your shoulder gave out was, ironically, in Rio in 2007, what did you take from that -- besides ending your career with two more gold medals to bring the total to six?
Maritza: The most vivid memory I have from Rio and those Pan American Games was swimming the 400 relay and having the Brazilian girl who tested positive for drugs trying to run me down in the last 50 meters, and I remember thinking, “This is my last hurrah. I can hold off anyone and get a bigger lead when I get my hand on the wall.” I probably beat her by 2 or 3 seconds in the last 50. That made me feel good to do that in my final hurrah.
10. In between those golds was a silver and bronze at short course Worlds in Japan, what did that meet do for you?
Maritza: They were good for me. I was struggling at that meet with shoulder pain. To get up and swim and bring home hardware eased my mind a little bit. To go that fast not rested and tapered kept me confident and motivated.
11. Every time I talk to Natalie Hinds she says texting with you after she, Simone and Lia claimed the sprinters podium after NCAAs is a highlight -- you still think of her fondly, don’t you?
Maritza: I do! And we are part of the sorority Sigma Gamma Rho so we will be doing a bunch of clinics together to spread the message of water safety among African-Americans. She is always vibrant and has a great smile -- she’s so charismatic and such a great communicator.
12. I know Lia has a special place in your heart. She really represents you personally with her grace and lack of need for the spotlight, doesn’t she?
Maritza: Oh yes, definitely. Lia is like that quiet storm. I always enjoyed watching her, going back to her making the Olympic team -- that remains a vivid memory for me. I have always admired her. And she has such a great support system, especially with Simone and the bond she has with her.
13. How important to the cause has it been that all of these great women and men of color have such different personalities and are their own person in each case?
Maritza: I think that’s awesome -- that’s great, to show such different backgrounds. We are not the same, and have different personalities, and all shine in our own way. There’s something spunky about each one of us so we reach our own groups of people.
14. Simone Manuel had a special place in your heart before she was really fast, as she and her mother researched black women in the sport and discovered you -- that warmed your heart, didn’t it?
Maritza: It did and it does! I love hearing that story. I get a lot of those on Facebook, where parents reach out to me. Lia, Simone did it, Candace Cooper did it -- it makes me feel good that the hard work I am doing is having a positive effect.
15. The walk before you can run -- are we out of that stage, or are we still slow in the progress?
Maritza: You know what, I think Simone jump started the process. We’re skyrocketing the process. Thanks to Simone and Lia, and the rockets they lit. This is the opportunity we cannot let die. We have to make the most of it.
16. What is a realistic hope, if not an actual number, for representation from people of color on the next 1 or 2 or 3 Olympic teams?
Maritza: I think we have gone from 0 to 1 to 2, now last time we had 4. I think we can continue to double that. Eventually, it will be a great mixture and we won’t have to have this discussion. It’s a great multicultural sport.
17. How many times have you watched Simone’s race, reaction and interviews since Rio?
Maritza: Man, if I could keep that thing (laughs) playing in the background at work, that would be awesome. I was amazed by the entire games, especially watching Simone. I had the Home Alone look when Simone won. Then she said my name and I was like, “Rewind the whole thing, I have to relive this right now.” It gives me goosebumps all the time.
18. Your work with Sigma Gamma Rho -- how great has that been for USA Swimming and did you ever see this kind of success for that relationship -- isn’t it great?
Maritza: It is! USA Swimming has always wanted to reach a specific community and it can do exactly that. Sigma Gamma Rho reaches a community they would have never been able to otherwise reach. This was the gateway to the African American communities, in cities they would never reach -- African Americans who are afraid of the water even. It’s a gold mine we are sitting on in terms of how many people we can reach -- and save the lives of -- so I hope it continues moving forward.
19. You were great as a swimmer, but to still be in the news more than ever in 2017, 10 years after your last medal, how awesome is that?
Maritza: I was actually telling my friends that the other day -- that is has been 10 years since I was swimming and yet I feel like (laughs) I am more popular and reaching more people than ever now. I am very fortunate and very thankful for that.
20. Different feeling for Black History Month this year based both on Rio and the events of the world -- what is different, or maybe most important, to you?
Maritza: The importance of sticking together. It’s a trying time for our communities. People are fearful. People are anxious. We need to come together as a country, and as communities. That’s what I love about swimming, we are great about supporting and understanding each other, and being in everything together. That matters more than ever now.
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