When she was 6, Maritza Correia could barely stand straight, much less swim. “I was diagnosed with scoliosis [a curvature of the spine], and my doctor recommended swimming because it’s a total-body sport and keeps you flexible,” she says. Her parents, immigrants from Guyana, took her to a public pool in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they lived. “I used to have really bad back pains, but the more years I swam, the more the pain decreased.”

As it turned it out, Correia didn’t just swim for her health (although doctors now say her back is fault-free). She was a natural in the water. Her mother, a hospital nursing director who worked 12-hour shifts, took her to and from practice. “My dad helped me with my study schedule and time management,” she says. “He says you have to put in the effort in the beginning for anything to pay off in the end.”

And pay off it did. At the Athens Olympics last summer, she anchored her team in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle qualifying heat. Coaches substituted her in the finals, a decision her supporters found unfair. Nevertheless, the Nike-sponsored athlete helped her team clinch silver, making Correia the first black woman ever to win a medal in the sport.

Now, the University of Georgia undergrad is stoking the fires for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. "We especially hope that Maritza’s success will inspire more minorities to give swimming a try,” says Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body.

“A combination of things makes swimming unattractive to African Americans,” Correia says. “It’s very expensive and time-consuming. A lot of black girls don’t like to get their hair wet! And we don’t have enough role models.” But with Correia in the pool, the water’s warming up.                 

>> Why you should swim: Whether you’re a tiny tot or a senior, it’s great exercise, providing a full-body workout that builds heart and lung strength and burns 400 to1,000 calories per hour— depending on the stroke and your weight. Plus it’s low-impact, so it saves your joints.
>> What you’ll need: Goggles (so you can see underwater), a swim cap (it’s usually required) and a suit. You may also want to get de-chlorinating shampoo to protect your hair from chemicals used to keep the water clean.
>> How to learn: Bad technique can make swimming unpleasant; good technique can make it energizing and calming. Many cities have pools that are open to the public for free, along with lessons, typically for children and teens, at low or no cost. Local YMCAs and YWCAs also provide facilities and lessons at affordable rates. Also, check out area colleges and universities, which may make their fitness facilities available to local residents.
>> The next level: Advanced teens and adults interested in swimming competitively can enroll in master programs. For more info, visit www.usms.org or call(800) 555.7946.           —JC