Learning to swim & joining triathlon as an adult Latina - meet Martha Paniagua

We’re excited to share with you the first of many interviews, guides, diversity topics and much more to come in partnership with Diversity in Aquatics and the International Water Safety Foundation. Determined to share a look into the diversity and struggles that exist today in sport, we have a lineup of amazing athletes of all types, sizes and colors who want to share their often difficult journey to joining a sport that ‘doesn’t look like them’.

Let’s reach the finish line together. A finish line where we’re all working together to make sport inclusive for all identified genders, colors, sizes and experiences. 


Meet Martha Paniagua.

Martha is a U.S. Masters Swimming competitor, USMS Certified Adult-Learn-to-Swim Instructor and USMS Certified Coach Level 1 & 2, triathlete, and a volunteer Director of Operations and Communications for the non-profit Diversity in Aquatics. While those are impressive accomplishments on their own, there’s so much more to Martha’s story.

Martha didn’t learn how to swim until she was 49 years old. At the age of 19 she moved to the US from Mexico City and learned to integrate herself into Los Angeles culture. Sports, especially swimming, were not offered to her in her young life. It wasn’t until 4 years ago that she decided to take on a new challenge which changed her life.

Get inspired as Martha shares what it’s like immersing herself in the world of swimming and triathlon as a Latina. Most importantly, learn how we all can ensure inclusion for all in the sports we love.


Learning how to swim as an adult…

I began swimming lessons 4 years ago at the age of 49. I was looking for swimming lessons, but all I found were classes for kids. I was told that the pool, Aquacrest, in Delray Beach had a swim team so I went there and that is how I learned about USMS (U.S. Masters Swimming). I did not grow up in the US and was not an athlete so I did not know about the US Masters organization.

One day I showed up to Aquacrest pool Palm Beach Masters practice and asked the coach on deck “Can you teach me how to swim?” and that was the beginning of a new life for me. At first I was not able to get across the pool, I was absolutely petrified if I could not touch the bottom of the pool, thankfully all the coaches there helped me in the pool and the other swimmers also gave me great support that helped me feel comfortable in the water. 

Coach Thaddeus Gamory, a member of Diversity in Aquatics, was at the time the coach with Palm Beach Masters. He had the patience to teach me how to swim using proper technique, swim gear, drills and help me build my confidence to swim longer distances and in deep water. He used various techniques to help me overcome the fear of water in the pool and the ocean through meditation techniques, breath exercises and relaxing while in the water.

At the beginning of swim practice I felt kind of embarrassed to see all the other swimmers going very fast and I was intimidated. There were times after swimming practice that I was in tears and thinking I might just forget about swimming, but I could not share those thoughts with anyone, especially with my young daughter. I am supposed to be a self-motivated adult and I was not going to give up now. 


Meet Martha Paniagua, a Latina who learned to swim as an adult & is now a coach

Martha is greeted by her friend Gary as she arrived to the beach exhausted and incredibly happy that she completed her first ocean mile swim, Jupiter FL 2017.


My inspiration was to be able to compete in a sprint triathlon and perhaps someday swim the Acapulco swim event (which I had promised my school friend, back in my home country, that one day we would do it together).


Navigating the triathlon world.

Triathlon competitions are very challenging because there is so much to learn prior to an event, you need to prepare well in advance with many hours of training. In addition to being new to swimming, I was also new at riding a bike and a road bike was almost impossible to master. 

I bought my first bike ever around the same time I started swimming. Growing up in my country a bike was not allowed and not a safe way of transportation in the busy streets of the city. I learned to ride my daughter’s old mountain bike that she had outgrown. So  I joined a group of retired men in the Boca Raton Riding club to teach me how to use my bike, from changing gears to learning how to stop and using clip-in-pedals. I also joined women rides with Bicycle Generation, my local bike shop, which helped me to learn to ride in a group.

Running the 5k was probably the hardest test for me in my first sprint triathlon. I remember being one of the few last athletes to arrive at the finish line. I remember seeing the volunteers dismantling the barricades and no one was waiting for me. Regardless I was very proud of my first event, I said to myself “I did it!” 

To do triathlons you need to be in a team and train with a coach or multiple coaches, one for each of the sports. You have to be able to invest time for training, learning all the details and networking with other athletes. You also need extra money for gear, coaching, transportation and that all adds up.

For my first triathlon I asked for help from the local triathlon team and they gave me a free tri-suit and some hand-me-down bike shorts and shirts to train. 


Martha's first sprint triathlon Independence Day Triathlon Tradewinds Park, FL

Martha's first sprint triathlon. The swim was in a lake and the water was murky, a very hot and humid day in Florida. She was one of the last athletes to reach the finish line. Independence Day Triathlon, July 3, 2016 Tradewinds Park, FL


Challenges in joining the sport.

I think there are many misconceptions about the three sports (swim, bike and run), issues with body image, health issues, nutrition, and support systems. It is important to get informed and learn from the experts.

When you see images of the ‘perfect athletes’ it is hard to see yourself or many of us might not join a club if there are really fast athletes, unless you are invited by a friend.

There is little or no outreach in the latino communities and other issues in general for adults to get involved in sports, unless you were exposed to sports in childhood, it's unlikely that you will be joining sports later in life. 

Martha and her daughter Janina Fowler participated in the Mighty Mujer Sprint Triathlon, Miami FL. They took 2nd place for a Mother-Daughter team.

Martha and her daughter Janina Fowler participated in the Mighty Mujer Sprint
Triathlon in Miami, FL. They took 2nd place as a Mother-Daughter team.


How to help grow and support sport for all.

In triathlon, as in any sport, the challenge is that athletes are competitive and if you are not a fast swimmer, fast cyclist or strong runner the others will leave you behind. We need more local groups of alike people, black, brown, latino and latina coaches, more female representation in the three sports, no-drop groups and groups that include everyone!

We need more programs to educate and encourage adult Latinos and Latinas to get in the pool, cycling and running in a safe manner and encourage them to practice any sport for recreational or competitive purposes, and to be active in general.

I think there should be more outreach programs and groups to allow for all levels and proficiencies as well as sponsorships from bigger organizations to support those groups. Most importantly, is to get involved in our local communities and pools and become a coach so we can bring new people into the sports.

Martha today!

Swimming has really become my passion and once I discovered open water swimming I just fell in love with the ocean!

The ocean gives you that sense of serenity that you cannot get at the pool. The pool can be competitive and chaotic at times. In the ocean it’s only you, the waves, the ridges in the sand, fish, the sun, the wind and much more. I have been swimming in the ocean longer distances and in different conditions and I was able to compete in the 1K and 5K event in Acapulco with my best friend.

Since I started swimming I also made it a goal to become a USMS certified Adult Learn-to-Swim Instructor and USMS Swim Coach Level 1 & 2. I assist with the Diversity in Aquatics Swim and Triathlon Club in Fort Lauderdale because I want to give back to the community and reach out to people that are afraid to swim or compete in a triathlon. 


Martha at the US Masters Swimming certification program to obtain a Certified Coach Level 1 & 2 USMS

Martha at coaching practice, during her coach program to obtain a Certified Coach Level 1 & 2 USMS Certification in Feb 2018.


Currently I am one of the coordinators of Delray Open Water Swim group and we meet every Sunday for open water swims. We are a no-drop group so if you come swim with us we will match you with a partner and if you are at a slower pace, or it’s your first time in the ocean I will personally stay with you the entire swim.

Water Safety Festival at Pompey Park in Delray Beach, FL 2018

Water Safety Festival at Pompey Park in Delray Beach, FL 2018


My passion is to swim and help others discover the joy of swimming. My advocacy is in water safety as well. I have developed a program for an “Aquatics Festival” and partnered with a local government agency in Mexico to bring awareness of water safety and promote swimming in low-income communities. We have exposed over 300 children to safety in water events and I hope we can expand the program for the Latino community in the US.



Martha Paniagua Diversity in Aquatics Swim and Triathlon Club - Adult learn to Swim Program with Coach Thaddeus Gamory

Diversity in Aquatics Swim and Triathlon Club - Adult learn to Swim Program with Coach Thaddeus Gamory Fort Lauderdale, FL


I don't have any races in mind at the moment, but I am doing strength training, focusing on improving my swimming stroke, learning how to flip turn in the pool, and I want to learn how to jump from the board - that will give me some advantage when competing in future swim meets. Last year, I completed the open water swim event in Acapulco with my friend and I feel very much accomplished. I will continue to swim in the ocean to be able to do longer swims and hopefully someday swim in another part of the world.


Martha Paniagua at the Barbados Nov 2019 open swim event

Martha with her team in Barbados Nov 2019 at the Open Water Festival