By Nailah Ellis Timberlake//Communications Manager, Multicultural & Foundation | Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Long before Maritza Correia McClendon made history on the pool deck in Athens in 2004, a conversation in a doctor’s office when she was six years old charted her course. Diagnosed with scoliosis, she heard a recommendation from her doctor that changed her life.
“When the doctor suggested I take gymnastics or swimming, my mom figured it would make the most sense for me to swim since we were living in Puerto Rico.”After being enrolled in swim lessons that summer, Maritza asked to participate in a year-round program. She joined a local swim club and started swimming competitively.
When Maritza was nine, her family moved to the United States and settled in Brandon, Florida, a city on the outskirts of Tampa. As a member of the Brandon Blue Wave Swim Team, she continued to compete competitively and earned a spot on the 1997 USA National Junior Team along with Natalie Coughlin and Brendan Hansen. In 1999, she became the U.S. National Champion in the 50-meter freestyle in the 18 and under age group and was named Florida High School State Champion six times.
Maritza was heavily recruited by the nation’s top college teams and visited the University of Florida, Auburn University, UCLA and the University of Georgia. “I chose UGA because it was a beautiful campus, the coaches were awesome and it was an all-around great swimming program,” said McClendon.
She excelled at Georgia and quickly proved to be a strong contender for the 2000 Olympic team after she won the 200 freestyle at the NCAA Championships.
“When I got to Trials, I freaked out, my nerves got the best of me and I swam the worst race possible,” shared McClendon. “Leading up to the 2000 Olympic Trials, there was so much hype about who was going to be the ‘first’ African-American to make the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team - Anthony [Ervin] made it and I had to refocus.”
With that behind her, McClendon went back to training for her next Olympic opportunity. During that time, she became a three-time World Champion, two-time Pan American Games gold medalist, was the first African-American to break a world record in swimming and became the first African-American female to hold American records. McClendon’s opportunity finally came.
“During the 100m free at the 2004 Olympic Trials, my hand touched the wall and I knew I made the Olympic team and made history.” With that touch, McClendon became the first female African-American swimmer to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
McClendon recalls how excited she was during her first Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. “It was amazing! I remember how cool it was to walk out on the pool deck, seeing every nation’s flag.”
McClendon went on to earn an Olympic silver medal in 2004 as part of the 400m free relay team, adding another historical accomplishment to her already impressive swimming resume.
After returning from Athens, Greece, McClendon rejoined her college teammates in Athens, Georgia, and became the American record holder in the 50y free and 100y free, and an 11-time NCAA Champion and 27-time NCAA All American. She is still the only swimmer, male or female, to win an SEC title in every freestyle event and was the 2003 University of Georgia Student-Athlete of the year. She graduated in 2005 with a degree in sociology.
In 2010, Maritza married Chad McClendon, who she began dating after retiring from swimming. “He thinks it’s super cool that I’m an Olympic Swimmer, he’s so proud of me and is my biggest supporter,” said McClendon who is transitioning into a ‘Swim Mom’ with the couple’s two children, Kason, 4 and Sanaya, 2 ½.
“My son has had a few lessons and loves the water so I may have a swimmer on my hands!” exclaimed McClendon. “My daughter likes the water but doesn’t like to get her face wet, so time will tell.”
Currently McClendon is the Senior Marketing Manager for Nike Swim where she travels throughout the country attending elite level national meets and works with coaches and swimmers. McClendon is also the ambassador for USA Swimming’s Swim 1922 program, a partnership with Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority with the goal to lower drowning rates within the African-American community.
“I want to inspire other minorities to get involved with swimming and love it as much as I do,” said McClendon. “We host an AT&T swim clinic, partnering with Sigma Gamma Rho, at nationals and introduce them to the competitive swim arena so that they become comfortable with the water and inspired by the sport.”
What began as a medical remedy for a six-year old girl turned into an historic event, “I’m proud to be the first, but I don’t want to be the last,” said McClendon of her Olympic legacy.
“A lot of younger swimmers and even parents look up to me – I made history and didn’t walk away from it. I want to inspire people, especially minorities to learn to swim.”