WRITTEN BY SHARON ROBB
PALM BEACH GARDENS—Olympic medalists Maritza Correia McClendon and Matt Targett kept a group of young swimmers entertained by combining fun with swimming at the Swim Champions Fitter & Faster Tour stop Saturday at the Palm Beach Gardens Aquatic Complex.
For three hours, Correia, a 2004 U.S. Olympian and Targett, a member of the 2008 Australian Olympic team and former Auburn swimmer, took turns encouraging up-and-coming swimmers and their parents about a sport that helped them get to where they are today.
From racing with swimmers as young as five to answering questions about superstar Michael Phelps and koala bears, the Olympians inspired and encouraged swimmers at the grass roots level. Based on the question-and-answer session, the one most recognizable name in the sport is Phelps.
“The kids relate to Michael so you can’t help bring his name up,” Correia said. “It gets them excited to talk about him. There are so many Olympians out there but they only know a handful. There are so many of us that have a great story, have done so much for our sport and communities, but they don’t get the limelight because they don’t have eight gold medals.”
Mesmerized by a life-size photo of Correia at the pool entrance, a young boy said to his father, “we get to race the Olympians, I think I can beat them.”
Unlike football, basketball, baseball and soccer where kids can meet and watch athletes at games and other events, the opportunity for young swimmers to see, meet and swim with Olympic swimmers is limited.
“We want to find kids that are excited about swimming,” Correia said. “It’s a very healthy sport to be in. These kids absolutely love it when we come down here. I leave here with the biggest smile on my face.
“For us as Olympians, it’s so exciting when they want to come up and talk to us, get our autographs and take pictures. They want to get in and race us. They get pumped up and ready to go.”
Correia and Targett talked with parents and swimmers before getting in the pool to work with swimmers on everything from strokes to kicking. They incorporated games to make it fun. Autograph, photo sessions and goodie bags were also part of the clinic.
“It took me a long time to figure it out,” Targett said. “I was slow in the beginning. I didn’t win a race until I was 17 or 18. I was always second or third. One day I just decided to put my head down and race.”
Since the tour’s opening event in Seattle in August 2009, more than 10,000 kids have participated throughout the U.S. including South Florida.
“When I was growing up I never had the opportunity to listen to an Olympian talk or give us their story, or even get in and swim with us and teach us simple drills,” Correia said. “I think this is fantastic. I didn’t even know clinics like this existed until I started doing them.
“I think it has a huge impact on them,” Correia said. “They see Olympians and want to try and be just like them. This tour’s goal isn’t to go out there and find Olympians, it’s just to get kids excited about swimming. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
It’s also another way for Olympians to get more exposure for their sport and themselves other than every four years at the Olympic trials and Olympic Games.
“They may not know who we are but just the fact we are Olympians and giving them a few pointers here and there are a thrill for them and makes an impact,” Correia said.
Correia said talking to parents is “a huge plus.”
“The kids can listen but they might not remember everything,” Correia said. “The parents really listen to our story and it’s good for them to know that we weren’t perfect kids in swimming. We didn’t want to come to practice a day or two when we were growing up. It’s good for them to hear that because they can relate to their own kids.”
Sharon Robb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org