Olympic swimmer reaches out to teach Detroit kids

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Maritza McClendo,n 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist and the first female African American to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, displays her medals.

Detroit — Olympic medal winner Maritza McClendon described how she helped a child at a swimming clinic Sunday learn how to float.

“This young lady didn’t even know how to float, so I gave her a quick lesson floating on her back, and she enjoyed it so much, she stayed in the water after the lesson, said McClendon of Atlanta.

McClendon, 36, the first African-American female to win an Olympic medal in swimming, participated in a swim clinic at the Wayne County Family Aquatic Center in Chandler Park in Detroit sponsored by USA Swimming. The clinic was one of the initiatives by the governing body for the sport of swimming in the U.S. aimed at increasing  swimming abilities across all races and socioeconomic levels.

For Lanylia Chandler, 7, getting lessons from McClendon was a chance to learn and adjust to the water. 

Olympian Maritza McClendon, teach Amyra Spears,9, of Detroit how to float and kick on her back during a swim lesson at Chandler Park during the swim clinic.

“I had lessons on how to float on my back,” said Lanylia Chandler, 7. “It was scary, but fun because now I can get to float.”

Lanylia, visiting from Oklahoma, said the scary part was “when the water went into my nose and I couldn’t breathe, but (McClendon) kept helping me.

Her grandmother Genae Powell of Detroit said she brought her two granddaughters and one of their friends because she liked the family atmosphere.

“I wanted them to be able to get some lessons and enjoy themselves in the water,” she said.

Her other granddaughter, Makya Provitt, 13, said she already could swim “a little bit.”

“I got in the water and moved my feet and hands,” she said. “I’m not really afraid because I like the water.”

USA Swimming partnered with the historically black Sigma Gamma Rho sorority to offer the Swim 1922 clinic, named after the year the sorority was founded.

“USA Swim hosts free swim clinics to help provide educational opportunities because of the disparity in minority communities involving water safety and learning how to swim,” said spokeswoman Melissa Katz.

Young swimmers learn the technique of breathing through your nose and mouth during the swim lesson at Chandler Park.

Many factors — money, access, fear, no others in the family who swim — explain why children don't know how to swim, experts say.

According to a 2017 study by the University of Memphis and University of Nevada-Las Vegas, 64 percent of African-American children have little or no swimming skills, regardless of household income, and 45 percent of Latino children had little or no swimming experience. In households that make less than $50,000 a year, 79 percent of children have little or no ability to swim.

Angela Bullock, chairwoman of the event and vice president of the Detroit alumni chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho, said it was the third year of the event and the first at Chandler Park.

"We understand the incidence of drowning is unnecessarily high in our communities because of barriers such as not knowing where swimming lessons are offered and possibly not being able to afford lessons," she said. 

"What we found through our statistics is if a parent doesn’t know how to swim there’s only a 30 percent their child will learn to swim," said Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, the philanthropic arm of USA Swimming.

Olympian Maritza McClendon, right, poses with sisters Deja Ragland,15, and Jazmyn Ragland,11, both of Westland.

Dozens of children splashed around in a wave pool at Chandler Park while younger ones played in a smaller pool. Nearby, performers dressed as a gray dolphin in a pink and yellow sundress, and a blue whale in a white cap, danced with children to music played by 15-year-old DJ "Breezy."

McClendon, who said she has earned 11 international medals, brought three to the event "so children can see them, and hopefully, get inspired."

The three included an Olympic silver medal from 2004, the World University Games gold medal earned in 2005 in Izmir, Turkey; and the World Championship medal earned in 2001 in Fukuoka, Japan.

"The purpose today is more about learning water safety, and if you find an Olympian out of this, it would be icing on the cake," she said.