by Maritza McClendon on July 13, 2016
As a young girl in suburban Florida, I remember watching swimmer Amy Van Dyken win four Olympic gold medals in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. I knew I wanted to be up on that stage one day.
Four years later, I won an NCAA Championship in the 200-meter freestyle and found myself going into the Olympic trials positioned with a shot to make the team. Then the nerves came. Wide-eyed, I peeked around at my competition and scanned the crowd for my parents, focusing on everything except the water.
I placed 32nd. Losing wasn’t the worst part about going home. My father was. "You’re a disappointment, Maritza. You embarrassed the family and let the team down," he said. I had a second chance to place in another Olympic competition, but my father told me to pack my bags. He didn’t want to risk more embarrassment.
I was ready to quit swimming. Imagine not only being disappointed in yourself for not achieving a goal but also having a parent scold you — to have someone who’s supposed to be your biggest cheerleader show you little support. My family and I were never the type of people who talked about our problems. So I held in my issues. When my father yelled at me, I would never express my anger or even vent about him to my close friends. Instead, I hurried upstairs and locked myself in my room.
After the trials, I spiraled into six months of depression. I began therapy to talk about my adolescence, a childhood dominated by traveling and training for swim meets. I reevaluated my relationship with my father and talked about my fears with my coaches. Getting help made me decide to stick with swimming.
Seeking mental help also allowed me the chance to focus on what really mattered: self-care. Talking about my feelings, not just related to swimming but also my school and social life, helped me figure out that I was stronger than I realized.
I barely spoke to my father during those years. My mom served as a liaison between us; if he wanted to know about my career, he found out through her. The distance was good for our relationship. When I won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics and made history as the first African-American woman to reach that milestone in swimming, my dad was there, cheering me on from the sidelines. Before he died four years later, he told my mom he was proud of me.
I landed my first real job when I was 27 years old
Little did I know that 2004 would be my first and last time at the Olympics. I hung up my cap and goggles in 2008 after I got a double shoulder injury. My dreams of gold in Beijing were cut short. I retired, not wanting to be that athlete who strained her body past her prime.
Retirement placed me in panic mode — I had a house payment, a car note, staggering credit card debt, and, worst of all, no idea how to manage my finances. My only sources of income came from booked appearances here and there and a Nike contract that expired by the end of the year.
I was a 26-year-old with no work experience. As a full-time swimmer for more than five years, I’d had no time to take up an odd job during summer breaks. The most intimidating part of entering the real world was putting together a résumé. How could I impress employers with zero bullet points? Sure, people are impressed by Olympic athletes. But waving an Olympic medal in front of the human resources receptionist doesn’t mean you can skip over the experience section on job applications.
For a year, I went on interview after interview with no success. The few employers who showed interest in me said I fell short of their established requirements. I longed for my swimming days — the 5 am laps and afternoon weightlifting sessions. To deter my nostalgia, I focused on workshopping my résumé during informal sit-downs with employers. I had one-on-ones with hiring gurus to free myself from the boredom of post-Olympic life.
Then came a breakthrough. I discovered an opening at Nike, my former sponsor, as a grassroots marketing representative. Better yet, the position was for the swimming division. A perfect opportunity — I’d be able to return to the sport I loved and work behind the scenes of aquatics.
At 27 years old, I had my first day of work, equipped with a new computer, pens, and a notebook to match. When I joined the staff, I feared that my co-workers would dismiss me as the athlete. And some co-workers did devalue my opinions and undermine my intelligence during the early stages of the job. But I brought my strong work ethic and knowledge of swimmers’ psyche to the office. Proving my co-workers wrong, I worked my way up the corporate ladder and built confidence in my ability in the workforce, a quality I didn’t always have as a swimmer.
Retirement from swimming also let me focus on my personal life in a way I wasn’t able to when I was full-time athlete. I met the man who would become my husband when we were both students at University of Georgia — Chad saw me for the first time in 2001 and told himself, "That’s the girl I’m going to marry." But we didn’t get together until years later, after I’d retired. We got married in 2010 and now have two beautiful children.
When I swam, you could count number of black swimmers on one hand
My setbacks in and out of the water have only made me stronger and better able to help people. I spend my free time mentoring young swimmers like Candace Cooper. She walked away from the sport after a few bad competitions, but I told her about all the failure I faced as an athlete and how you can always turn your life around and go after your dreams. Candace returned to the sport recently in top form.
Seeing young black women succeed in aquatics is what I love about mentoring. In my prime, you could count the number of black swimmers, male and female, at any given meet on one hand. Parents would ask me why I wasn’t on the track or basketball team.
As I gained more fame in the aquatics space, criticism of my appearance found its way onto the internet. Born in Puerto Rico, I am Afro-Latina, but my parents are Guyanese. Commenters would question my identity, saying I couldn’t possibly be black because my hair wasn’t the texture that black women’s hair is "supposed" to be.
I also believe my athletic ability was questioned because of the color of my skin. In 2004 I qualified for the Olympics final relay team. Even though I was the second-fastest swimmer, the spot was given to another girl — a white girl — because she supposedly had more "experience." I missed out on the opportunity to receive another silver medal — a defining moment of glory.
Today, things are changing: Three black young girls won top ranks at the NCAA Championship swimming competition last year. I’m honored to have paved the way for black athletes in aquatics, but we need continued representation in the sport to break the stereotype that black people cannot swim.
Seventy percent of black children and almost 60 percent of Hispanic children don’t know how to swim, according to a 2010 report. We need more community pools, financial support, and awareness to bring people of color to the world of swimming, along with more swimming lessons available during the early grade school years.
To break barriers and achieve goals, you have to believe in yourself and block out negativity — even from loved ones — who say you should aim lower.
Maritza "Ritz" McClendon made history when she won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics for swimming, becoming the first woman of color to achieve that goal. The University of Georgia graduate retired in 2008, ending her competitive career with 12 international medals.
McClendon works for Nike Swim’s marketing department and recently accepted a senior marketing position at OshKosh, a children’s clothing company. In her free time, she mentors other athletes, promotes water safety and travels the country as a motivational speaker. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, Chad, and their two children, Kason and Sanaya.