By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, March 6, 2018
Mariza Correia-McClendon is now hosting Deck Pass in her continuing role as an ambassador for the sport, a pioneer who made history for African American women, and her role proudly working for Sigma Gamma Rho and the USA Swimming Foundation to teach African Americans to swim, something that is making huge strides. She talks about that, and what means the most to her -- her husband Chad, and their children -- in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So you go from Oregon back to Georgia, what’s it been like now that you are settled in and everything?
Maritza: We’re doing well. Georgia is fantastic. It’s good to be back home. We’ve been back now for two years. We got a great house which couldn’t be better for us. The kids are awesome. And of course my husband is wonderful.
2. That’s been a key on this journey hasn’t it, how perfect Chad is for you?
Maritza: Oh yes, he is perfect for me. We get along great. He keeps me grounded. He helps me out every single day. He makes sure I’m always happy and feel so loved.
3. Your friends always mention how great Chad is -- I guess that’s not a bad indicator you married the right man?
Maritza: Absolutely. I hear it all the time. He’s always taking care of the kids when I have work, or when he was home alone with them for the weekend, he cleaned the entire hour by himself. So whatever I am doing, he is helping me along the way. He is always making my life better. He’s also a very good energy and positive person, so it’s in his character to want to be busy and help people. I think that really benefits our kids.
4. You still, with all the travel for swimming and work, have done such an incredible job with your kids -- as you get, ahem, a bit older in life, you’re putting together quite a body of work of influence, giving back, and your incredible swimming and now work career -- don’t you feel that well?
Maritza: Well, first of all thank you, that’s very kind. You know it’s funny you say that because my Mom comes up and was watching us manage everything and she said, “You are like super Mom. You never get tired, I’m so proud of you.” I was so caught off guard. I told her, “I got it from you, Mom.” She was a nurse who worked 12 hours a day helping people feel better, then got up to take me to swim practice and always had dinner for us each night. My Dad traveled a lot, so my Mom stepped up bigtime. Now that I am a Mom, I appreciate her more than ever. I think, for me, swimming helped me a lot, putting in so many hours managing so many different things the whole time. I think another big aspect is taking the hard times and finding positives from them -- that everything is a reward, everything is a chance to make yourself better.
5. I’ve been there for everything from your college to pro career, the medal, the shoulder injury, the job, the move -- I can’t believe how strong you are every single time. It’s been amazing how you’ve turned lemons into lemonade every time, hasn’t it?
Maritza: I definitely think that’s kind of life. You go through your ups and downs. You make difficult choices and sometimes it’s fantastic, and other times it’s a learning experience. But every time it comes down to learning from your experience, reasoning your way through what’s next, and making that leap of faith, doing all you can to make it work.
6. You traveled so much for swimming, and did as a pro athlete, then working for Nike, and now to help people learn to swim and represent the sport -- is it kind of fun now having more time at home, especially since you’re back in Georgia?
Maritza: I think that’s one of the joys that swimming brought me and working for Nike. But it also helped me in my relationship because I got to see how Chad handled things like this and how it made our family and our relationship stronger, whereas it could have been a huge strain. Now that we have a family, and I have a wonderful job that is more corporate and I am around more -- though I do travel still for swimming -- I think I appreciate it more. But I’m also thankful for how it worked out -- that I was able to do all that traveling when I was younger and could enjoy it and get the most out of it.
7. What’s it like being back at UGA after being a star there so long ago?
Maritza: You know, it’s really odd because it was in the back of my mind to go back to UGA for more than 10 years, and when I finally did, I love it so much. I loved it when I was here before, every season, and all the great support I had. Then I made a leap of faith and went to Oregon, and I learned so much and made such great friends and built my network there. But it is so nice ot be back. My husband is from Georgia and we have a great support system for our kids.
8. One of my highlights is talking to Jack Bauerle, I bet it is good to see him at least a little bit more now for you?
Maritza: I definitely appreciate every time I talk to Jack. He always brings up different events that he has memories of -- he has a memory (laughs) like an elephant. I think it’s great. I love talking to him. I saw him (the) Friday (before last), and had another trip back down Memory Lane. He says, “Ritz, you had some great swims.” The cool part now is I work with people who of course have no idea about my swimming, so when we get new clients in and they see my Olympic ring or do recognize my name from something on TV or online, they get really excited. And my boss is the best in the world about it -- she’s so proud of me and loves me sharing what it was like being an Olympian and getting a medal. That means so much to me.
9. That’s funny about Jack, I was talking to him one time -- I want to say he was on a StairMaster -- and he randomly recounted exact times, races and places from something Kristy Kowal had done -- isn’t that wonderful the way he does that?
Maritza: I definitely appreciate that about him. That’s how much it all means to him. Every time I show up on a pool deck with him, he is still quick to talk about SEC races, or about a race where I ran some people down. I never once thought he saw me as one of his greatest athletes, but he is still so proud of me. He still calls and checks up on the kids. Or he has a random memory and he’ll call out of the blue, “Hey, Ritz, I’m at Auburn, remember when we were five seconds down (in a relay) and you ran those girls down and we won by two one-hundredths of a second?” I mean, how awesome is it to get a call like that?
10. How about their current run of titles as women’s swimming continues to raise its level yearly -- they had quite a run recently up until Stanford claimed its first title in a while last year -- isn’t that incredible?
Maritza: I am super proud they are constantly improving that program. It’s great to see Georgia in the top of the rankings now, and not just the women’s team because they are great on the men’s side. Over and over again, he has them near the top. And he has Harvey (Humprhies) and Stefani Moreno (Williams) and the rest of that great coaching staff and support system, so important to maintaining and building upon all of their successes.
11. We all love Stefani. How much fun has it been to see her meteoric rise at other places and then coming back to Georgia, isn’t she a great coach?
Maritza: She is, and it’s been great to watch Stef do that. We were teammates and I always marvelled at how she came across as somewhat hesitant and shy, yet very comfortable and confident. You could see the mindset of a coach in her thoughtful approach. Now she’s this great leader and coach, and she demands a lot of them --- she demands that they ask a lot of themselves. And that attitude has earned her a lot of respect on the pool deck. Plus with her training (triathlete), she lives what she preaches. It’s so incredible -- what an inspiration she is.
12. All of you from those teams do seem to have done incredible things, why is that?
Maritza: I think Jack breeds that type of attitude. It was such a great environment for all of us as young women, and it made us so strong and confident. You take that with a great education, and when you leave you are ready for the next challenge -- you just feel unstoppable. You take that approach of doing your best and being responsible, and that growth and pursuit of excellence continues.
13. Isn’t it odd how there’s so many more resources now and knowledge with nutrition and training, and even social media now?
Maritza: They have everything at their fingertips: Social media, a nutritionist -- I didn’t know they even had one until last week! But that’s where the sport is heading, and it’s incumbent among the top programs to incorporate that. Because of the internet, Millennials and Gen C have that expectation of what will be there, and if you are not aware of the latest and best options, you will fall behind. Georgia has done a great job of staying ahead of it.
14. Olivia Smoliga’s determination reminded me of you. We had talked before her two illnesses, and after her last NCAAs and making the Olympics and Worlds, she had pushed herself through the other side with such determination -- did you notice that?
Maritza: Olivia Smoliga, oh yes, absolutely, and I’m flattered to be in the same sentence because she is amazing. That whole group they have that made the team, with Hali (Flickinger) and Mel (Margalis) really had a great grasp of the challenge and were on a mission. As far as Olivia, I was so happy to see her overcome all of those challenges, and the attitude and grace she had the whole way. I remember talking to Brian (Smith), her coach, saying how great she was doing working through it. And yet she’s still almost shy still, just such a good person inside -- and has done such a fantastic job stepping up.
15. I remember the end with your shoulder and how hard you pushed through it -- are you glad you pushed through it, could you have shut it down sooner? It’s odd because after your historic medal at the Athens Olympics, you won 7 medals in a 3-year span ‘05/’06/’07, including five golds, and wins in the 50 free and 100 free at International Meets on Team USA -- do you ever think back on how it all went?
Maritza: I don’t know.... My belief then and now is it happened the way it was supposed to happen. From a personal standpoint, absolutely I should have taken better care of my shoulder. I was one of those athletes who thought, well, I just need some ice, it’ll get better. But had I left then or had surgery and missed out, who knows where my life would be now? I knew by the way things happened when it was time to go, and I had nothing left so in a way even though I wanted to make the team in 2008, I had given it all I could give it. But would I have had those other results you mentioned, would I have gotten involved with Sigma Gamma Rho and Swim 1922? Would I still be this involved with swimming and feel so great about everything that happened, even the challenges? I can’t look in the rear view mirror when everything I’m experiencing is so incredible.
16. I remember you messaging me the morning after Simone Manuel, Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds went 1-2-3 in the 100 free at NCAAs wondering why I hadn’t written anything yet! I was and am so proud of you. How big was that moment, especially now with what Lia did making history medaling in two consecutive Olympics and Simone’s incredible history making in Rio and Budapest?
Maritza: I think that was a game changer. Honestly, I still remember it vividly, being slightly irritated it had gotten so little attention but very proud of what they had done -- and it did get great coverage in the days and weeks after. Just a side note, I see Natalie Hinds, she was here in Atlanta, and she’s staying involved with Sigma Gamma Rho as well. So to be in the front row and seeing these things still? Yes, I love it!
17. When I wrote wrestler Rulon Gardner’s book he was as proud of winning worlds in 2001 as he was of gold in his upset in 2000 of an undefeated Russian for Olympic gold. In a way, it made me think of what Budapest must’ve meant to Simone -- does that make sense?
Maritza: Oh certainly, there were probably some doubters who thought she was done after Rio and would move onto what’s next. At Budapest, her performance was a statement: I am not going anywhere. She swims so fast. Again, I wish (laughs) Budapest got a little more press, because Team USA really stepped up bigtime. The toughest feat is coming off the Olympics and standing so strong -- helping lead Stanford to an NCAA title and then her record-setting performance in Budapest. That’s so impressive, especially coming off of all she put into Rio and all that she proved at the Olympics.
18. And how about Lia winning medals in two consecutive Olympics, the first African American to do so -- armed with a Stanford degree now for her journey out into the world?
Maritza: I am so proud of her, she is so tough. She was so great with Simone in how they carried themselves and what they accomplished -- I think them having each other added a lot to the experience of both of them making history. Lia has hung in there for so many years, and to even get to two Olympics, to win medals in both, and win an NCAA title -- Lia is just incredible.
19. You are in love with Carter’s, where you work as a Senior Marketing Manager -- as a parent, of course I know and love Carter’s, but how did you end up there after being at Nike in Oregon before you moved?
Maritza: I literally moved to Georgia not knowing what kind of work I would get into. My Mother in law knew someone who was a VP in HR, and put me in contact with some people who knew of opportunities for which I could apply. And it took me 15 interviews! So five months later, I got this super exciting job. I can’t tell you how much I love it or how amazing my boss has been. It’s a different market from what I did at Nike, but it’s a wonderful evolution for me and certainly I think they saw what I learned and did at Nike as something that evolved into this position in many ways. It’s just a really healthy, productive environment to work in and a great corporate culture. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned. And as a Mom, I love all the product -- my check goes back into it quite often! I just love talking to merchants and designers. The move, my previous job, this opportunity, moving back home -- it was a perfect storm. I’m very grateful.
20. You are in maybe the best shape of your life, you are out giving swim lessons, commentating on TV for swimming -- you are a living part of the history of this sport, what means the most?
Maritza: Making a difference. Drownings are going down in the black community. It was 70 percent back when I was a swimmer. We have it down I believe another 6 percent now, which is an unbelievable huge pendulum shift in the big picture. It’s been awesome watching all this history being made, and seeing the dignity and class these articulate athletes have when they are literally changing the world with their determination and drive. I love working with Sigma Gamma Rho, and I’m so thankful those amazing women have found a space for me to be on their team, because World Juniors were incredible. We have at these Nationals the highest number of minorities -- ever -- and to me, that is just fantastic. I am so grateful and so proud to marvel at our growing diversity out on pool decks, where the entire world can see it.