By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Tuesday, February 28, 2017Growing up an African-American female swimmer, Maritza Correia McClendon lacked an idol in the sport who looked like her.
Instead of moving onto a different sport where she could find that person, she chose to look up to someone who was simply fast – Amy Van Dyken – and look past any need she may have had to identify with someone who was black.
So when it came time for her to be the idol for little black girls and boys in swimming, McClendon took the responsibility very seriously – and it continues to be an integral part of her life even though it’s almost been a decade since her last competition.
“I knew I wanted to be a role model for other black kids to swim, enjoy the sport as much as I did and swim fast,” she said. “For many years, I didn’t realize what my accomplishment really meant and I didn’t have the right people supporting me in the early years after the Olympics.
“It wasn’t until years later that I started to realize what a trailblazer I really was. I have to give credit to the women of Sigma Gamma Rho for really opening my eyes to the magnitude of my history-making feat. Over the last 5 years, I have been working really hard to get my name out, share my message and inspire the next generation.”
When McClendon finished her competitive career after Nationals in 2007, she left her mark on the sport as the first African-American woman to make an Olympic swim team. She competed at the 2004 Athens Games, leaving with a 400 freestyle relay silver medal.
She held that special designation until this past summer when Simone Manuel, another African-American woman who identified McClendon as one of her swimming idols and mentors as a young swimmer, won gold in the 100 freestyle.
Needless to say, when McClendon watched Manuel accomplish her historic feat in Rio, she ecstatically knew the torch she carried for minority swimmers was now passed into very good hands.
Ah, the circle of swimming.
“What she (Manuel) has accomplished and what lies ahead is something everyone will have a front seat to,” said McClendon, who set the American record in the 50 freestyle during her career, something she is more proud of than even swimming in the Olympics. “Thanks to social media, you can get to know athletes on a personal level and really fall in love with their personality and can even connect with them directly.
“Her performance inspired every minority swimmer out there and every minority person out there to be better athletes. She has now put swimming on the list for people of color to consider as a sport they can do and do well.
I have seen a change in how many minorities there are in the sport over the last decade, but I know because of what Simone accomplished in Rio, this decade we will see a major shift in our numbers for the better.”
Along with being a role model and mentors for other young swimmers, McClendon is wife to husband, Chad, and mom to 5-year-old son, Kason, and 3-year-old daughter, Sanaya, whom she calls her Sweet Diva.
In addition to wife, mother and Olympian, McClendon works full time as the Senior Marketing Manager for Brand and Direct to Consumer for Osh Kosh B’Gosh. Her main focus is in special brand projects, influencer marketing, organic social media and cause marketing, among other things.
The family relocated to Atlanta from Portland, Ore., a few years ago for her job, and she said she loves being back in the South and close to her University of Georgia roots.
“I’m busier than ever trying to wear all my hats each and every day (wife, mom, employee, Olympian, daughter, sister, friend, and the list continues),” she said. “But I love it all. Life is amazing, and I have the best partner – my husband Chad – to help me manage it all.
“Juggling motherhood and a career has its challenges, but much greater rewards. I’m thankful to have an amazing boss who allows me to be a mom, helps me grow as an employee, and is supportive of my athlete persona. Even though the kids are getting older, I still don’t want to miss a moment and I love being with them and watching them grow up.”
As if she’s not busy enough at work and home, McClendon’s work as the spokeswoman for Swim1922, a partnership between USA Swimming and Sigma Gamma Rho is also a labor of love for her.
Fortunately, Chad’s work as a sales rep for Shuma Sports (based in ATL), he sells sports equipment for all sports to middle schools, high schools and colleges for multiple brands and customization of products, allows him a flexible schedule to help out at home, with the kids and her sometimes unpredictable travel schedule.
“Through the Swim1922 partnership, our goal is to increase swim participation and decrease drowning rates within the African-American community by engaging local communities with swimming programming,” she said. “I can’t help but keep up with swimming. Our athletes continue to get faster and faster and it’s so exciting to see.”