MAKING A SPLASH

When it comes to swimming, Maritza Correia hasn’t lost her competitive edge.

Correia – who won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens in the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay – races her brother’s kids. (He’s a swim coach.) She’ll even race hubby Chad McClendon, who’d always been more into track and field.

“He’s a very competitive guy. He wants to beat me,” she says, adding with a laugh, “He can’t beat me.”

But Correia – who holds an arm’s length list of firsts, titles and records, including 11-time NCAA champion and 27-time NCAA All-American – is just as passionate about keeping others in the water, safely.

“I decided to use my career to get more minorities into swimming,” says the Nike exec and USA Swimming spokesperson, who is the first African-American to break a world swimming record and the first female African-American swimmer to hold American records (in the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle), make the U.S. Olympic team and bring home a medal.

To promote water safety, Correia recently appeared in our area and on NBC’s “Today” show for “Make a Splash,” a program in which the USA Swimming Foundation teams with communities like Mount Vernon and New Rochelle for a day of instruction and other civic events.

Ten people in the United States drown every day, with two-thirds of those deaths occurring between May and August. Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death for children between the ages of 1 and 14, with youngsters of color being three times more likely to drown than their white peers. There are many cultural reasons for this, Correia says.

“For females, they don’t want to get their hair messed up. Lots of African-Americans aren’t exposed to swimming. And pools are expensive to keep up.”

For Correia, swimming was almost a necessity. Born and raised in Puerto Rico to Guyanese parents, she was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 7. Doctors urged her parents to enroll her either in gymnastics or swimming as physical therapy.

“My mom took me to the beach and taught me how to float and be safe in the water, and I took to it,” Correia remembers. “I wouldn’t say I was the best athlete. It kind of took a lot, but it taught me to work hard.”

For minority swimmers, not all the challenges are in the pool, as Correia discovered when she moved with her family to Tampa at age 9.

“When we came to the U.S., I was kind of the oddball out, me and my brother,” recalls Correia, featured in “Parting the Water,” a documentary about the obstacles black and Latino swimmers face. “It kind of drove me to be successful.”

At Tampa Bay Technical High School and the University of Georgia, where she majored in sociology and was part of the well-respected Lady Bulldogs swim and diving team, Correia steadily began compiling that arm-long list of accolades in national and international meets, both short- and long-course. There was gold at the World Championships in 2001 and 2003. And then came the Olympics in Athens in 2004.

“That Olympics was exciting. We had a big rivalry with the Australians. We knew we were in for a battle.”

Swimming buffs will remember the Athens games for the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle event, in which the U.S.’ Klete Keller held off Australia’s Ian Thorpe for the gold in what Michael Phelps, who swam the first leg, would later call one of the greatest relays ever. But the American women were no slouches. Before their 4×100-meter freestyle event, they huddled together and said, “Go USA.” Correia swam the crucial anchor leg of the preliminaries, which are all about getting the team into the best lane position for the final.

It is an irony of performance that artists and athletes are often too into the moment to remember much of the moment.

“I had to make sure I got my hand on the wall,” Correia recalls.

Afterward, she watched the race with her coach.

“I was like, I did that? It felt great.”

Though the American ladies took silver to the Aussies’ gold, “it was still amazing,” she says.

Today, Correia, who makes her home in Brandon, Fla., no longer swims five to six hours a day. She’s too busy with her career as sports marketing manager for Nike Swim and her family, which includes Spaniels Malibu and Bentley and Jack Russell Terrier Tyson. Not surprisingly, the Spaniels enjoy spending time in the pool with Correia; the Jack Russell, not so much.

Then there’s six-month-old son Karson.

“I definitely want to get him acclimated,” Correia says.

He’s already a fan, though she says she won’t begin swim lessons until he’s potty trained.

And when he’s ready, mom – ever the competitor – will be waiting.

For more on “Make a Splash,” visit makeasplash.org.

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