ST. PETERSBURG — Maritza Correia McClendon, a former Tampa Bay Tech and University of Georgia swimmer and 2004 Olympic medalist, hears the stories. They break her heart.
"We were doing a swim clinic in Seattle," Correia McClendon said. "Three weeks before it, one of my sorority sisters, her employer's daughter, drowned in a river. She was 7 years old. She was in the water and she didn't really know how to swim. The current just took her away. A beautiful little girl."
Summer is here. Correia McClendon, 35, has teamed with Bounce TV network, the YMCA and the non-profit Black Kids Swim to encourage children to learn to swim, particularly young African-Americans, who drown at 5.5 times the rate of other children. Correia McClendon has done a public service announcement in the name of the initiative.
"It's a mission for me," Correia McClendon said. "Making the Olympics was a dream come true, but it also empowered me to reach people."
Correia McClendon has long been an inspiration. Her family moved to Tampa from Puerto Rico when she was 9. She won six individual state titles at Tampa Bay Tech and was an 11-time NCAA champion at Georgia. And at the 2004 Athens Olympics, she became the first African-American woman to make the U.S. swim team and won a silver medal as part of 400-meter freestyle relay.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Simone Manuel became the first U.S. African-American to win an Olympics individual swim event. After her victory, Manuel mentioned Correia McClendon as one of her heroes.
"It meant the world," Correia McClendon said.
So does her current mission. Correia McClendon cited the research: 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children lack basic swim skills.
"We're not saying black kids can't swim, but they typically don't venture into swimming" Correia McClendon said. "It's saying we need to learn how to swim. As much as it's not a racial thing, the facts don't lie. We have to move the needle by getting kids into formal swim lessons. It's about adults, too. The chances of your child not being able to swim are drastically higher if you don't know how to swim. Swimming is more than a sport. It's a live saving skill."
Correia McClendon, who is married with two children, lives in Atlanta, where she is a brand marketing manager for Carter's Inc., a baby clothing company. She will spend 20 weekends this year doing water safety and swim clinics around the country.
"I had an 80-year-old woman get in the water," Correia McClendon said. "She didn't know how to swim. She was tense at first, but within 15 minutes, I had her floating on her back. She came to me four months later and told me she's taking water safety lessons at her YMCA. Every story like that is a victory.
"I worked with twins from Arizona not too long ago. Two young girls. Very timid. So we just sat on the steps and blew bubbles for half an hour. I went to work with another group, but I looked over and they were swishing their arms in the water. They learned. They told me, 'Miss Maritza, now we can go to pool parties!'"
Two beautiful little girls.