Many thanks to open water adventurer and SwimSwam contributor, Jake R. Bright, for this feature story.
As an amateur competitive swimmer, it’s not every day someone in the lap lane next to me makes an Olympic podium. That was until last year when I started swimming in the masters lane next to Lia Neal’s high school team at New York’s Asphalt Green. There were some speedy young swimmers, but Lia stood out as one of the fastest up and down the pool. Soon after she made the US team and took a London medal podium – all as a high school student on summer break. Lia cranked out a 53 second 100 meter split on the US women’s bronze medal 4×100-freestyle Olympic relay team. Lia also became only the second African American woman (her mother is Chinese and father African American) to make the US Olympic team and to medal in the Olympics. She recently finished high school and will swim for Stanford University this fall.
I caught up with Lia, on her Olympic experience, future plans, 4:45am Brooklyn rising time to make Manhattan morning practices, and how even with Michelle Obama and the world watching she handled her first Olympic final as “any other meet.”
JAKE BRIGHT (JB): When did you start to focus seriously on going to the Olympics?
LIA NEAL (LN): My coaches started thinking I could make the Olympic team a couple of years ago, but I didn’t really think so until a couple of months before the trials. I am kind of an over realist. Other people often believe I can do something before I can. The Olympics seemed like something so beyond, that so few key people get a chance to be a part of.
JB: How did you shape your swimming around making the US team?
LN: I just went to every practice offered. No matter how tired I was or the stress of going to morning practice, I wouldn’t make up excuses, I would go to every practice that was available – mornings, evenings, and weekends. I also went to [USA Swimming’s] Charlotte Grand Prix, which gave me a chance to swim and train with national teamers.
JB: What do you remember most about your Olympic final relay event?
LN: Usually I can’t remember my races, but I remember not being nervous and that surprised me. I remember watching in 2008 and could not even imagine going to the Olympics, something so foreign than any other meet. Once you’re in the waiting room and you walk out you realize it’s just like any other meet. During our final training camps I started getting restless. So mostly I remember being excited to finally race.
JB: What was your favorite non-competition related Olympic moment?
LN: During our training camp in France the team started to get really close and we also got to explore some of the places around. Also, meeting The Dream Team was really cool. They came around our dorm at night then hundreds of athletes from different countries started to gather around for pictures and autographs.
JB: What did it mean to you to medal in swimming as a 17 year old American and only the second African American woman in US history?
LN: It means a lot because I’ve been hearing more and more that kids look up to me and see me as a role model. I never dreamt about being the role model. Parents tell me their kids see me that way. It’s kind of weird to hear but also really cool. I am flattered by it. If I can inspire kids to swim or accomplish whatever they want to that’s a really cool accomplishment for me.
JB: Will you be working with any programs to get more minorities and young people in general into swimming?
LN: I am part of Swim Brooklyn, which is a branch off of USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative. The focus is more on the urban aspect of raising awareness of swimming and swim education. If I have time, in the future, I’d like to be more hands on and teach more kids how to swim. I see that all the time at Asphalt Green and it seems like a lot of fun.
JB: It’s hard to believe you just finished high school. You’re heading to Stanford Swimming already as an Olympian with a medal. What will your goals be moving forward?
LN: I swam for my sixth and final year with my high school team. Looking forward, 2016 [Olympics] is definitely a goal for the long term. Right now, I’m more focused on the 100 free. I’m just looking forward to college and seeing what more I can do now with a different type of training compared to club swimming.
JB: What is Lia Neal’s favorite activity outside of the pool; most played song on your IPod?
LN: I like going to the movies and time being with friends. The song I’ve been listening to most: “Bad Girls” by MIA.
Jake R. Bright is a New York City based writer & producer. He covers business, economics, Africa, music, skiing, and open water swimming.