Lia Neal: A Humble Star By Swimming World Intern Charlie Shea

By Swimming World Intern Charlie Shea

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PISCATAWAY, New Jersey, January 13. LIA Neal was born in Brooklyn, NY, on February 15th, 1995 and began swimming at age 6 for Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics (AGUA).

“I first realized I was pretty good around the time Junior Nationals rolled around during 2009 in Guam,” Neal said. Although she didn't place at the event, she persevered in her training, and by the time the World Junior Championships in Lima arrived in 2011, she was in a position to dominate. And dominate she did. She won gold medals in the 100m freestyle, 4x100m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle, and silvers in the 50m freestyle and 4x100m freestyle.

Perseverance is something that Neal emphasizes while talking about the keys to her swimming success. “You need to fail before you can succeed, and that makes the successes even sweeter,” she said. At the CeraVe Invitational, her “failures” are become more prevalent, but it's not because she's swimming poorly. It's because she's leaving her comfort zone.

While she is traditionally a sprint freestyle specialist, during the Invitational she is swimming more “off events:” events that she normally doesn't get the opportunity to do. For example, the breaststroke or butterfly. “It's really fun to be able to get out and swim some of these off events… Having fun is really what it's all about,” explained Neal.

Just because Neal classifies an event as an “off event,” doesn't mean she can't win it, though. She did just that in the Women's 100m butterfly. She didn't perform quite as well in the 200m breaststroke, or the 400m freestyle, falling short of the championship round. Neal also added 2 ninth-place finishes in the Women's 200 IM and the 500m Medley Relay.

“This meet is really fast this year,” clarified Neal. “But it's still really laid back and easygoing compared to the Olympics.” Frankly, most meets probably are.

Lia placed fourth in the 100m freestyle at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in June 2012. It was just good enough to qualify for the US Olympic Women's 4x100m freestyle relay team. “That was the happiest moment of my swimming life: making the team,” said Neal.

The women's 4x100m freestyle relay went on to win a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games behind the Australian and Dutch teams. The US team was composed of Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal, and Allison Schmitt, respectively.

Since the Olympics, Neal had to adjust to her newfound celebrity. In her own words though, “it hasn't been that bad.” The only time she was ever recognized on the street was “…in the weeks right after the Olympics, and that was only like once.” In an American culture that emphasizes first place above all else, Neal's third-place bronze could easily have been overlooked. Is Neal bitter? No; in fact it doesn't bother her. “It's kind of a blessing in disguise.”

What perhaps draws the most attention to Neal is not her blistering times, but her race. Not her swim races, her ethnic race. Lia Neal is a black swimmer. Why is that significant?

Recent studies by USA Swimming estimate that up to 70% of African-American children don't know how to swim. In fact, Neal was only the second woman of African-American descent to ever make the US Women's Olympic Swim Team. “I didn't really think about it at first, but, after the Olympics, the media kept bringing it up, and that's when I really realized it,” Neal said. “I guess I'm kind of a role model.”

There aren't many role models better than her. Neal attends Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private high school in New York; the alma mater of such notable women as Eunice Kennedy Shriver and (gulp) Lady Gaga. Neal is also incredibly kind and considerate, always available for a photo or autograph with a perfect smile stretched across her face.

Neal hasn't become distracted from her swimming, though, as evidenced by continued displays of excellence in her core events: sprint freestyle. She took 1st in the women's 50 and 100m freestyle at the CeraVe Invitational.

While the Olympics have forever changed Neal's life, she hasn't. She continues to live her life to the fullest, and no one should want it any other way.