Drowning statistics in the United States are sobering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ten people die from accidental drowning every day and, of those, two are children aged 14 and younger. What’s worse is that this crisis disproportionately affects monitory communities. African-American children aged five to 14 are three times more likely to drown than their white counterparts, says the CDC.
In the face of such depressing trends, Talia Mark has made it her mission to attack the problem head-on. As the Manager of Multicultural Marketing for USA Swimming, it is her job – and her passion – to generate interest in swimming and create awareness for the importance of water safety, particularly among blacks and Latinos. And it’s a sweet gig. She jets around the country with Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, organizing community swim events and private lessons with black and brown kids, and she just spearheaded a partnership between USA Swimming and the sorority Sigma Gamma Rho to spread the water gospel even wider. (Jones will also be on the “Make a Splash” tour come 2013.)
While it may seem like a responsibility too large for the 29-year-old Michigan native, Mark is cruising confidently on comfortable terrain. Before joining USA Swimming, she served as the Manager of Diversity Affairs for NASCAR, similarly working to increase minority interest in a sport that many of us overlook. Recently, we sat down with Mark to discuss her career path, why she’s so committed to getting more folks into the pool, and her advice for other aspiring women.
Madame Noire: You’ve held some pretty high profile positions at both NASCAR and USA Swimming. Did you always have a dream to work in sports?
Talia Mark: Actually, I wanted to go into event planning, but nobody told me out of high school that public relations was not event planning. So I studied public relations at Central Michigan University.
My first internship was with a place called PineRest Christian Mental Health Institution. One day my best friend called me because she was doing an internship at this place called TCG Campbell in Dearborn, MI, and they were having this big crisis. She was calling me to see how to fix it, and when I got off the phone with her I was like, “Look, I don’t know what it is that you’re doing, but I want to do that. This is not where I want to be, and I can’t sit in the office everyday.’ And come to find out, she was working with the Ford Racing team.
A couple weeks later I was able to get an interview with TCG Campbell, and they asked which department I wanted to work in. I was 20 years old, and I just knew that I wanted to travel, so they put me in racing.
MN: Did you have any preconceived notions about NASCAR or racing, in general, before you took the position?
TM: Honestly, I didn’t even know what NASCAR was. I had no idea. My first race was at Talledega, AL. That was my first experience, and it was actually during the taping of Talledega Nights, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It was so big, and so loud, and so fast, and everybody was so nice. There was just so much happening that I couldn’t go back. I ended up staying at TCG Campbell for about 2 ½ years.
MN: How did you move from NASCAR to USA Swimming at the beginning of 2011?
TM: In my last position at NASCAR, I was the Manager of Diversity Affairs, so my overall goal was to get more people interested in the sport who weren’t previously interested. The goal was to bring opportunities to diverse communities that may not have thought about racing as a viable option for entertainment or for job opportunities.
Going into the Olympic year, USA Swimming knew that the world is evolving and its much more diverse, and since they are the leaders in the Olympic movement, they wanted to be ahead of the curve in terms of diversity. So they were looking for someone to develop a multicultural marketing plan and reach out to people who may not swim. Essentially I was doing the same thing at NASCAR, but now there was the chance that I could actually help save someone’s life.
MN: How did you get the call? Did you have to actually apply?
TM: I had a number of people – some of my mentors and other people that I know in the sports industry – tell me that USA Swimming was really looking to promote diversity in swimming and they asked if it was something I would be interested in.
MN: That’s interesting because I think a lot of people are still relying on filling out job applications to get hired, but it doesn’t often happen that way, does it?
TM: No, I don’t think I’ve ever filled out a job application.
MN: So what advice do have for others to best position themselves for career opportunities?
TM: I think the first thing is to recognize opportunities. When I first took the job at NASCAR in Florida, my grandmother told me not to do it. She said it was far from family, far from my home, far from everything that I knew. But you have to have confidence in yourself, and let that fear go. A lot of people don’t want to let go of what’s comfortable.
Secondly, networking is going to be a big thing. When I first got into NASCAR, I sent out notes to people who I respected in the industry, and I still do this today.
I’m not coming at them looking for a job – that’s what they’re used to. I simply tell them that I respect what they’re doing in the industry, and I respect [he/she] as a businessperson, and I ask if they would be willing to mentor someone like me. And I will tell you right now that I would not be able to do half of the things that I am doing without my mentors. They have opened so many doors for me and stopped me from going down the wrong path so many times.
MN: So what’s next for you?
TM: I definitely have big dreams and goals, but I’m very happy with what we’re doing at USA Swimming, and what we’re doing is so important right now. You only get that chance once in a lifetime to make such an impact on someone’s life, a culture, a community. And I’d love to do bigger things within USA Swimming, so I’m looking forward to seeing what that growth will bring.
Andrea Williams is a journalist and writer based in Nashville, TN. For more, follow her @AndreaWillWrite.