Olympian and hall of famer reaches back to get kids in the pool

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Olympian and hall of famer reaches back to get kids in the pool

This is an occassional AJC Sepia series that looks at black Greek letter organizations

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Maritza Correia McClendon won a silver medal in swimming in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. When she is not wearing the Red, White and Blue (or the Red & Black of UGA in the pool, you can find her in Sigma Gamma Rho's Blue and Gold. McClendon was recently inducted into the Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame and was placed in the University of Georgia’s Circle of Honor.

This is an occassional AJC Sepia series that looks at black Greek letter organizations

Maritza Correia McClendon’s Swim 22 Program is one of several programs and partnerships that Sigma Gamma Rho overseers as part of the sorority’s efforts toward community service. All Sigma Gamma Rho projects are under the sorority’s signature program, Project Reassurance umbrella, “H3 – It’s All About Me!: Healthy Choices, Healthy Living, Healthy Generations.

 Sigma Gamma Rho Partnerships include:

  • March of Dimes
  • St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
  • USA Swimming
  • USA Track & Field

 Sigma Gamma Programs:

  • Hattie McDaniel Cancer Awareness and Health Program – breast cancer education initiative and participation in breast cancer walks/runs (named in honor of the late Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar and member of Sigma Gamma Rho).
  • March for Babies – volunteer and help raise funds for research, medical services and support to families with premature births – a partnership with March of Dimes.
  • Mwanamugimu Essay Contest – essay contest that strives to improve writing and research skills, for elementary, middle school and high school students geared toward educating American youth about Africa and African culture.
  • Operation BigBookBag – collection of school supplies for children in need.
  • Project CRADLE Care – pre and postnatal education and resource program, held the third Saturday in January, to provide information, resources and tools for women of childbearing age to help ensure a healthy baby – a partnership with March of Dimes.
  • RunJumpThrow – program encouraging youth to get excited about physical activity and helping to lay the foundation for a healthy lifestyle – a partnership with USA Track & Field.
  • St. Jude Walk/Run to End Childhood Cancer – participation in walk/run to raise funds for treatment and research to help kids with cancer and other life-threatening diseases – a partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority was the first National Pan-Hellenic Council organization to reach its goal in 2015).
  • Swim 1922 – water safety program to educate and encourage the community to learn how to swim (held more than 25 in and out of water safety clinics and town hall meetings since the beginning of the partnership in 2012) – a partnership with USA Swimming.
  • Youth Symposium – nationwide event, held simultaneously on the second Saturday in March, designed to highlight some of the prevalent concerns and issues that impact our youth.

 Sigma Gamma Rho Grants

  • A 3 4 Life Project – five-year grant funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide HIV and AIDS education and awareness.
  • The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy – grant to develop an educational module to provide education on the prevention of teen pregnancy and unplanned pregnancy, especially among single adults.

One diagnosis changed Maritza Correia McClendon’s life.

At the age of six, doctors diagnosed McClendon with scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

“My mom was a nurse and noticed something was wrong. My back was curved 25 degrees off center,” McClendon said.

Doctors suggested she participate in gymnastics or swimming to help straighten her spine.

“I knew I was going to be too tall for gymnastics. My dad was 6’2,” she said. “Growing up in Puerto Rico, we were surrounded by water, so it was a natural fit to take swim lessons.”

McClendon started taking lessons in a backyard pool and with those lessons, her love for the sport began as she gained more confidence with each stroke and lap.

“I immediately knew by the end of the summer I wanted to swim all year long,” she said. “So, I asked my mom to put me on a swim team.”

McClendon went from swimming in the backyard to swimming for the University of Georgia to swimming for the United State Olympic team. And recently, she was inducted into the Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame.

She has also become an advocate for the sport of swimming, encouraging everyone to learn how swim. According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim.

As part of that, she is the face of her Swim 1922, her sorority Sigma Gamma Rho’s partnership with USA Swimming to help prevent drowning among minorities across the country.

“Embracing my sorority’s national campaign has reignited my love for swimming,” said McClendon who joined Sigma Gamma Rho in 2013.

“I may not be a competitive swimmer any more, but it has brought back my joy. It is wonderful to see my sorority sisters and other people who have been afraid of the water now excited about swimming.”

It is something McClendon has been excited about for a long time. In 1990, when she was nine, her family moved to Tampa, where she embarked on a record-setting high school and junior’s career winning six Florida state high school championships.

As a Bulldog at UGA, she won 11 NCAA national titles and was a 27-time All-American.   

As the accolades poured in, McClendon’s love for the sport intensified. But not without hurdles. She tried out for the 2000 Olympic team but didn’t qualify. That brought on pressure from her father, which was followed by depression.

“I had an extreme case of parent pressure. He tried to live his athletic career through me. So, it was a huge disappointment for him when I didn’t make it to the Olympics,” she said. “I had a hard time recovering and it put a wrench in my ability to believe in myself.”

McClendon decided to get professional help and regained her confidence.

“I surrounded myself with positive people. I had my teammates’ and my mom’s support. That got me out of the rut,” she said.

She reset her goals and jumped back in the water. She broke American swim records and made the U.S. National Team for six consecutive years (2001 – 2007).
McClendon set her sights on the 2004 Olympics. And she made peace with her father.

He was in the stands when she became the first African-American female to make the United States Olympic Swim Team and was the first African American to bring home a medal in the sport.

She and her teammates won the silver medal in the 400 freestyle relay.

“It was amazing. Every emotion passed through me before, during and after the race. I made my dreams come true,” McClendon said. “I made it to the Olympics and I won a medal. I was instantly proud of the determination it took to get through the tough times.”

Winning the silver medal changed her life. McClendon was recently inducted into the Georgia Aquatics Hall of Fame and was placed in the University of Georgia’s Circle of Honor.

“It’s kind of crazy,” she said. “I never imagined myself being in the Hall of Fame. I still can’t believe I was inducted into a Hall of Fame. It’s truly an honor.”

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