WASHINGTON DC --- When Maritza McClendon won a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the Olympics in 2002 she became the first black American swimmer to ever win a medal for the U.S. team.
McClendon is using that accomplishment to help hundreds of kids learn to swim here in Washington DC and across the nation.
On Saturday, she teamed up with Howard University, USA Swimming and the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority to help teach dozens of kids from the DMV how to swim.
“Sometimes people have that fear of, “Oh my gosh, it's 15 feet of water and the basic thing you have to remember is that you can float whether you're in two feet or 15 feet-- floating is the same thing,” said McClendon.
This is the second year that the Howard University swim team hosted the event. Head Coach Nicholas Askew said the clinic helped about 50 kids last year and this year they had to cap registration at the event at 80 children.
“I would be remiss not to mention Simone Manuel's amazing accomplishments [at the 2016 Olympics in Rio] and the other women of color, including Lia Neal of Stanford University, and just the Olympics making it a huge, huge push for young people to see someone that looks like them, that they can identify with at the highest level of swimming,” said Askew.
The women’s group Sigma Gamma Rho also played a big role in the organization of the class. Leaders are concerned with high percentage of minority drownings every year.
According to the Center for Disease Control, drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States. An average of 10 people die every day from drowning across the nation and of that number 2 in 10 are children under the age of 14. That’s a little more than 700 children each year dating back to 2005.
“When you hear 70 percent of African American children don't know how to swim and 60 percent of Hispanics don't know how to swim you want to make a difference,” said McClendon. “You want to go out and educate our communities and say there are opportunities and there are ways that we change those statistics.”
Tiffany Davis-Nealy, Assistant Director of the Northeastern Region of Sigma Gamma Rho, said the swim clinics are making an impact.
“I know we've been saving lives because we keep data and we talk to children before a swim clinic and afterwards and we know children when they are getting in the water [again] they're holding onto that training,” said Davis-Nealy.