As rough stereotypes go, America's greatest swimmers were born privileged white children who grew up on cul-de-sacs sandwiched between California and Florida. Their parents paid for lessons at about 5 years old, and the most talented among them won lots of medals and migrated to college swimming powerhouses, where they received the best coaching. Some of the very best became Olympians.
Maritza Correia did grow up in Florida, "but that's about it as far as the regular path goes," she said.
"Let's see," she continued. "I was born in Puerto Rico and my parents are Guyanese. I was diagnosed with scoliosis at 6 years old and my doctor said I should take up the sport for my back problems. And then I just started getting serious about it."
They call her "Ritz." She is 22 years old, always smiling, with little black Nike swooshes affixed to her pink fingernails. Sleek and powerful in the water, she has already broken freestyle sprint records held by Olympians Amy Van Dyken and Jenny Thompson.
And though six world records were set at the U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., last month, Maritza Correia made another bit of history as well.
She became the first black woman to swim for the United States, qualifying for the 400-meter freestyle relay, a year after winning a gold medal for the United States in the same event at the 2003 world championships.
Just like that, Justin Correia, her brother and coach at Tampa Bay Technical High School, had an Olympian to boast about from his modest program.
"It wasn't the 'hood, but we had a lot of minorities on the team," Maritza said the day she qualified for the Olympics. "And it was far away from most places with big-time swimming programs. My brother did a great job."
Justin is now the head swimming coach at the Temple Terrace Recreation Complex in Tampa, where many of his swimmers are Latino children. After his sister qualified for Athens, the children he coaches held a fundraiser to pay for his plane ticket to Greece so he could support his sister.
"It's an honor for her, but she is definitely swimming for her country first," Justin said by telephone from Florida.
"I think she welcomes the pressure of breaking barriers," he added. "She likes the idea of dispelling the notion that people of African descent just can't swim. But she also sees herself as just a swimmer. Because nobody saw us as anything else growing up. We weren't the black kids who could swim. We were welcomed with open arms into that community."
Maritza began swimming as a child after doctors told her it would help her avoid surgery to repair a 15-degree curvature of her spine. Her parents moved to Florida in 1990. Growing up in Tampa, Maritza's classmates kept encouraging her to join them socially after school. Correia always ended up at the pool.
"I got a lot of, 'Ohmigosh, you gotta go to swim practice again?' " Correia said. "But I just kept swimming. It was important to me."
She won a scholarship to the University of Georgia, where she set American records in the sprint freestyles and won multiple NCAA championships. She now swims for Broward Aquatics.
On one level, Correia said she does not want to be merely known as the "Girl from the 'hood who took up swimming." But if her inclusion into an almost all-white sport inspires one more minority child to swim competitively, "I'm okay with that. It's a little bit of a shame more minorities aren't involved."
As to why more black women do not take up the sport in the United States, Correia said: "I think swimming is a very expensive sport, and we don't have the kind of facilities that we would like in every city. If we just get the facilities put up and get more people involved and just have more role models in general, we can get them motivated to swim."
Correia has some help in her pioneering efforts. In 2000, Anthony Ervin, whose mother is white, became the first black male swimmer to represent the United States.
He shared the gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle with Gary Hall Jr. before retiring earlier this year. And Suriname's Anthony Nesty, now a coach at Florida whom Justin and Maritza consider a friend, made Olympic history in 1988, upsetting Matt Biondi in the 100-meter butterfly at the Seoul Games. He became the first black swimmer to win a gold medal. After Nesty out-touched Biondi, columnist Scott Ostler wrote, tongue-in-cheek, "Either Al Campanis was wrong, or that guy from Suriname must have sprinted along the bottom of the pool."
Correia knows the gantlet of race-related questions is soon to follow her success. But she is also embracing it.
"I think there will be a little bit of pressure on me," she said. "But I'm ready to handle it. I know the public eye is coming, and I'm ready."
"It's a great honor," she added. "It's something that has been a dream for me to be on this team, and it feels great to have done that."