First Black Woman on Olympic Swim Team

Farai Chideya talks with Maritza Correia, a champion swimmer from Florida who has earned a spot as the first black American woman to compete for the U.S. Olympic swim team.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

I'm Farai Chideya.

With gold medals in the 2003 and 2004 World Championships and a silver at the 2004 Olympics, swimmer Maritza Correia is a true aquatic champion. In the United States, swimming is generally considered a sport dominated by white athletes, but Correia became the first black American woman on the US Olympic swim team and the first to set an American record in swimming. She joins us from Turkey, where's she competing in the World University Games. So far, she's won three gold medals.

Welcome, Maritza.

Ms. MARITZA CORREIA (Swimmer): Hi. Thanks.

CHIDEYA: Tell us how you first got into swimming.

Ms. CORREIA: Actually, I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was about seven years old, and my doctor recommended to either, you know, get into swimming or gymnastics, and my parents decided to go ahead and try me out on the little summer league swim team. This was back in Puerto Rico, where I was born. You know, it just kind of all started from there, and I ended up liking it a lot more than I ever expected. So, you know, I kind of stuck with it and just throughout the years I got better and better.

CHIDEYA: So how old were you when you first moved to the States?

Ms. CORREIA: I was eight years old.

CHIDEYA: And your parents found a place for you to keep swimming. Was it a school, a rec center?

Ms. CORREIA: It was a--it was kind of like a YMCA-type place that I swam at.

CHIDEYA: And did people who were, you know, at the center recognize that you had a lot of talent just from the jump?

Ms. CORREIA: Actually, my career has been very, very slow. I've been, you know, kind of good from the beginning but, you know, not great. I never had, like, an outstanding swim. I was always very competitive when I was young, but I was definitely one of those athletes that had to work really hard to get to where I am right now.

CHIDEYA: Now you work with inner-city schools to get children involved in swimming. What do the girls and boys that you meet think about swimming before you talk to them, and what do they think about it after you've talked to them?

Ms. CORREIA: You know, a lot of inner-city kids don't really know how to swim. You know, I get a lot of, `Well, I've never been on a swim team,' or, you know, `I kind of go to a pool area, but I don't really like to get in the water' type thing. And, you know, I kind of tell them, you know, the kind of fun things that I get to do and the people that I meet and the places that I travel to. And, you know, just having them hear the stories that I tell them, they get really excited, and, you know, I've actually had some of the kids come up to me and be, like, `I want to be an Olympic swimmer.' You know, that feeling is just great, to, you know, make such a big difference on a young child just like that. And, you know, just from, you know, me talking to them for about 30 minutes, you know, it just makes such a big difference to them, and it's great. It's exactly what I wanted to do.

CHIDEYA: Sounds fantastic. Now what do you think would make a difference, besides people like you going out and talking about swimming, to kids who might not think about this as something that they want to do?

Ms. CORREIA: I just think having the facilities in the communities to, you know, get the kids involved. You know, build, like, a big YMCA and have, like, all types of sports, because a lot of these kids don't have the opportunity, they don't have the transportation, they don't have the money. You know, just getting kind of sponsors to, you know, kind of promote it a little bit more and get the young kids involved. It's great to be in sports. It can take you so far and teach you a lot of life lessons. And, you know, I think it's just a matter of, you know, getting those kids to see how great it is and have it in their area where it's not such a big problem to get to them.

CHIDEYA: Well, we certainly wish you good luck with the rest of the games. Maritza Correia is the winner of a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, and she's joined us from Turkey, where she's competing in the World University Games.

Thanks again.

Ms. CORREIA: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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