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Olympic medalist knows about physical challenges

Maritza Correia, 2004 Olympic silver medalist in swimming, is one of east Hillsborough’s most prominent athletes.

CARRIE PRATT | Times

Maritza Correia, 2004 Olympic silver medalist in swimming, is one of east Hillsborough’s most prominent athletes.

VALRICO

For many top-flight athletes, pulling away from their chosen sport is often difficult.

Even when faced with lingering injuries, the pursuit of excellence is so ingrained that it's hard to break a sport's grip.

For Olympic champion Maritza Correia, the pain in her shoulders the past two years not only hampered her performance, it made simple chores such as reaching for her clothes painful.

Correia said she has arthritis in her right shoulder and rotator cuff impingement in both shoulders, and suffers constant pain.

"It's been pretty painful, and that was the hardest part about swimming lately, that it was painful and frustrating to go to practices and swim in meets," Correia said.

Doctors told Correia she will eventually need surgery on both shoulders.

Correia said the pain started before the 2004 Olympics, and it increased the last 18 months. Her last meet was at the USA Nationals in December.

"I couldn't train as well as I wanted, and I would even race in meets when I shouldn't have, which wasn't a good idea. I stuck it out as long as I could," said Correia, who trained for years with coach Peter Banks at the Brandon Sports & Aquatic Center.

"I swam for 20 years, so I can't complain that I didn't get to do this or didn't get to do that. I did end up going to every single meet possible as a swimmer. I'm proud of what I accomplished."

Correia excelled at every level, bursting on the state and national scene in high school at Tampa Bay Tech, where she became the U.S. national champion in the 50-meter freestyle in the 18-and-under category in 1999. She was also a four-time Florida state champion in the 100-meter freestyle.

Numerous NCAA and All-American honors followed during her four years at the University of Georgia, including becoming the U.S. Open record holder in the 50-yard freestyle and being a member of the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relay teams that set U.S. records, all in 2002.

Her crowning moment was earning a silver medal with the United States' 400-meter freestyle relay team at the 2004 Olympics.

So as she transitions from champion in the pool to Nike spokeswoman at age 26, Correia is ready for the next phase of a life that's taken her places she never imagined as a shy youngster who moved to Tampa with her family from Puerto Rico at age 7.

She spends most of her time in Athens, Ga., where she attended college. She's been in the Valrico area since December to help her mother tend to her father, Vincent, who recently died at 67 from prostate cancer.

"My shoulders were hurting really bad, and with my dad being sick and my schedule being so flexible, I was able to come down here and help my mom,'' Correia said. "So it's kind of a blessing [no longer swimming competitively]."

Correia travels the country as an ambassador for the sport, either as spokeswoman for Nike swimwear, USA Swimming or the Women's Sports Foundation. She speaks to inner-city kids about her Olympic and collegiate swimming experiences.

"That means a lot to me, being the first African-American female to accomplish some of those things," Correia said. "So I still want to stay involved with the sport and be active and encourage minority kids to get involved with swimming.

"I really love it. I always get a lot of compliments from parents who tell me I really connect with their kids. Before I turned professional I was very shy, so when I started doing my speeches, it brought me out of my shell and it was something I was pretty good at and I love doing."

Correia said she gets a charge from going to swim clubs where kids don't know her and getting them interested and excited about swimming. Nike has her doing more of that this year as part of its promotion for the upcoming Summer Olympics.

She also lets kids know how swimming helped her overcome severe scoliosis — abnormal curvature of the spine — as a child when a doctor recommended getting in the pool for therapy.

She's also candid with them about her biggest disappointment, not making the 2000 Olympic team, and how it sent her reeling into a depression.

"I went through a lot of ups and downs in my career," she said. "The depression lasted five or six months. The one thing that got me through it was that I had the collegiate season right after the Olympics. It was my sophomore year [at Georgia], and being around my teammates and having their support along with my coaches helped me pull out of it.

"Whenever I'm doing speeches with kids, I tell them about trying to make something positive out of any negative situations. So I use 2000 as a lesson learned and that helped me make the team in 2004."

Banks, who has known Correia since she was 8 years old, said he knew she was hurting mentally. But he never doubted she'd bounce back.

"Part of the reason she reacted that way was because she was one of the favorites to make the team and she didn't make it," Banks said. "Olympic trials are very pressure packed. But like any athlete who has disappointments, she worked to overcome them.

"She went back to [Georgia], rededicated herself and made the 2004 Olympics."

Correia said just making the Olympic team after the disappointment of 2000 was one of her career highlights.

With promoting the sport so important to her, Correia said she tries to visit the Aquatic Center whenever she's in town. She spent a good part of April 5 there for the club's April Pools Day event promoting drowning prevention.

"Whenever I came home when I was in college, I always went to train with Peter," Correia said. "I'll do whatever I can to help out there."

Olympic medalist knows about physical challenges 04/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 28, 2008 1:10pm]
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