She’s a walking — or swimming, rather — poster child for minority aquatics. She’s the first black and Hispanic swimmer on the U.S. Olympic Swimming team, and the first Hispanic-American to set a national record in the sport (the 50-yard freestyle).
That’s all from someone who wasn’t exactly built to be an athlete. As a child, Maritza Correia suffered from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. Her doctor prescribed swimming as a treatment. And Correia just never stopped.
Today, the 25-year-old graduate of the University of Georgia works with inner-city schools and detention centers to get minority kids into swimming. Along with fellow black swimmer Cullen Jones, she collaborates with USA Swimming to bring diversity to the forefront of the sport. USA Swimming sent her to Asphalt Green’s “The Big Swim” in New York City, where more than a thousand minority children showed off their newly acquired swimming skills. It’s a part of USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” water safety campaign, where she and Janet Evans serve as spokespeople.
As a child, Correia never viewed her race as an issue nor saw herself differently from anyone else. Her mother taught her and her brother basic water skills at the beach, and she believes that minority drowning statistics can be lowered by teaching the same skills. She also says teaching kids to swim will lead them to a better, healthier lifestyle.
Having grown up in San Juan and then Tampa, Fla., Correia was used to a diverse ethnic make-up. But in the pool, she was the only minority with exception to her older brother. It was the low minority statistic in swimming that kept her going — to prove blacks can swim well, too.
And swim well she did. After a disappointing performance at the 2000 Olympic trials, Correia’s teammates and family convinced her to try again. She went on to capture several medals at the 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005 World Championships, and win four events at the 2002 NCAAs. Correia also became the first African-American woman on the U.S. Olympic team, winning a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 400m free relay.
But she doesn’t want to be recognized as the “next” Amy Van Dyken or Jenny Thompson. “I’m gonna be the first Maritza Correia. I want people to know me for me,” she has said. “And being the first African-American woman to hold an American record definitely sets that tone.”