ATLANTA -- It wasn’t long ago when a University of Georgia student became the first African American woman to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim. And that was just one of many firsts for Maritza Correia McClendon – a hero to swimmers now.
McClendon of Atlanta is a swimming legend – a UGA Bulldog and pioneer – who Simone Manuel calls her inspiration.
Moments after Simone Manuel won gold in Rio – the first African American woman to medal in an individual Olympic swimming event – she thanked God.
“I’m just so blessed to have a gold medal,” she said, tears streaming down her face.
She also thanked Maritza Correia McClendon.
"This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have come before me and have been an inspiration to me – Maritza Correia,” Manuel said.
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McClendon, for years, was the only African American woman swimmer competing. She swam for UGA – and she became the first African American woman to earn a spot on any U.S. Olympic swim team.
That was in in 2004, when she earned silver in the 400 Freestyle Relay.
Then, in 2009, a young Simone Manuel emailed her – her hero – and the two struck up a friendship.
Ever since that first letter, McClendon has been the mentor to Manuel that McClendon herself never had.
And McClendon has been encouraging African American children across the country to join swim teams, and she has been promoting diversity in the sport as she was doing in Atlanta in April, when 11Alive News spoke with her.
“As the first African American woman to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, it really speaks to my heart,” McClendon said. “I know when I made the Olympic team, I always said, I’m proud to be the first, but I definitely don’t want to be the last. It just takes a little bit of time. But as long as we keep pushing it, we’ll reach more.”
And now, McClendon, on her Facebook page – in post after post – is overjoyed at Manuel’s success. There’s no one prouder or cheering louder – the pioneer who is helping transform and strengthen the sport she loves.
McClendon’s influence is reaching children only just beginning to look up to role models. She posted a photo of a little girl in front of a television just after Manuel won gold, celebrating, cheering, as she hears Manuel thank God - and Maritza Correia McClendon.
So maybe that girl and McClendon’s own young daughter will qualify for, say, the 2032 Olympic swim team – when, thanks to pioneers like McClendon, the only records left to break will be how fast they all swim.
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