Our Game 2: Lia Neal Is A 20-year Old Olympic Medal-Winning Pioneer

In late March I wrote a piece for TSLs Our Game 2 series entitled The Pool Panthers Takeover,  which highlighted three African-American swimmers who made NCAA history by sweeping the podium in the 100 yard freestyle at the recent Women’s Division-1 NCAA Championship.  

Freshman phenom Simone Manuel of Stanford and her Cardinals teammate Lia Neal finished 1-2 on the podium. The University of Florida’s Natalie Hinds was third. Together they changed the swim game and broke some personal, NCAA and American records in the process.

Neal is no stranger to barrier-breaking water boogying. Lia, who has three older brothers, was raised in the Fort Greene section of BK by her parents Jerome and Siu Neal, who are of African-American and Chinese-American descent. Lia is already a swimming pioneer as she won a bronze medal in the 4×100 free relay at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Neal, who speaks three languages (English, Mandarin and Cantonese), set the tone for the Pool Panthers explosion about to invade women’s swimming in Brazil’s 2016 Olympic Games.

According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children between the ages of six and 16 are non-swimmers. As a result, black children, ages five to 14, are almost three times more likely to drown than Caucasian kids in the same age range

Lias shifting swimming’s long-standing, exclusive culture. With every stroke, shes also saving lives and she keeps going, almost oblivious to the tougher tasks that lie ahead and the impact her swim game is making on an historical, athletic and social level.

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The Shadow League spoke to this young torch-bearer about her water world journey and where her future strokes lead. Here’s her first-person breakdown. 

By Lia Neal: 

Before I ever started taking swim lessons, we lived by a public pool that was located two or three blocks from us in Fort Greene Brooklyn. It’s an outdoor pool. I remember I used to go there and splash around with my mom and dad. There was a kiddie pool about a foot deep and I would play in that. There was also a deeper pool for the adults and I remember I would get on my dad’s back. My dad also liked to go to this health spa on Wall Street. I would play around in the pool there as well with my parents.

I started actually swimming at 6. I was lucky to get into swimming. It happened by chance. My first-grade classmates were taking swimming lessons and suggested that I join them. That’s how it started off. I took swim lessons for two years and passed all of the levels. There weren’t any more levels for me to go through. The only thing left to do was actually join a swim team. I joined AGUA (Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics) in Manhattan at age 8. 

Since then I’ve just been going with the flow. In the beginning my mom and I were completely clueless about the sport. We didn’t know what was considered a good time and basic stuff like that. We wouldn’t really pay attention to that. When we had a practice or a meet I’d just show up behind the blocks and try to swim as fast as I could and eventually I started dropping time and breaking national records. So I just go with the flow. That’s what carried me for the next 14 years.

Theres no particular swimmer that really influenced my style or inspired me to swim. When I was younger I barely knew any Olympians and didnt even watch the Olympics until 2008. If I looked up to anyone it’s Natalie Coughlin because she swam a lot of events and was really good at all of them.

My coaches have told me that my finish is my strong point when it comes to racing, like I have a switch that goes off in me where I can really bring it home. That also means that I don’t come out the gate fast enough so I have to make up for it coming back.

Its a typical BK mentality. Its not how you start or where you start, its how you finish the race. In an ironic twist of fate that signified a changing of the guard, on May 13, at the 2012 Ultra Swim in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the Womens 100-meter freestyle finals, all eyes were on the veterans Coughlin and Jessica Hardy.

The newjack Neal — considered no more than a long shot to dethrone the swimmers — settled into her pre-heat ritual of zoning out to Lil Waynes 6, 7. She proceeded to beat Hardy by .01 seconds, touching the wall at 54.35 seconds. Coughlin, one of  Neal’s inspirations, finished third.

I’m not very athletic outside of swimming. I did volleyball in gym class one year. I had a pretty good serve but thats about it. I never really thought anything of swimming as far as what it could do for me financially, socially or otherwise. I didn’t set lofty goals when I was younger. My only goal was to beat the swimmers in my heat.

Obviously winning the bronze medal in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, changed that. Im aiming for bigger goals, but I havent changed my approach to swimming. Its always been about enjoying it. More than anything, my Olympic experience was fun. That’s the best way to describe it. Olympic Trials is very nerve-racking because you’re fighting with 100 other people to make the team. After trials all that pressure is off and all that’s expected of you is to swim as fast as you can and earn as many points as possible for Team USA. 

I remember we had two weeks of training before the Olympics and during that time I was getting restless waiting to finally compete. So when the time finally came for me to swim the preliminary session of the 400 free relay on the first day, I was gushing with excitement. The prelim swim was so much fun. I wanted to do it again so badly. I was fortunate to get a second chance and represent the country in the finals as well.

West Coast Bandit

Before Stanford, I attended The Covenant Of The Sacred Heart School in Manhattan. I went to the Olympics the summer after my junior year in high school, so I still had my senior year left. People often ask me if it was difficult to transition back into teenage school life after participating in the Olympic Games. It actually worked out because I kind of took it easy with swimming after that. I took a month break after the Olympics and for the rest of that year my training wasn’t as rigorous as it was leading up to the trials. That year was pretty easy.

Then coming to Stanford everything just changed dramatically for me. It was different training swimming wise, in the weight room and doing cardio. Also with me being a college freshman and away from my family, there was a plethora of new experiences and so many things for me to just figure out. Life is really different in college than it was back home in high school.

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To a certain extent, the NCAA Championships had that Olympic feel all over again. The outcome was great. Simone and Natalie are both great swimmers and Simone and I are on the same team so its great training with her every day and having someone really push me. Going into the meet I already knew that they were two of the best in that event so I didn’t really expect anything less from them. To be able to go 1,2,3 with them and have me able to maintain my second place spot ( I came in second in 2014) was just great. We all went best time so that’s also really fun to do as well.

I think if it weren’t for Twitter I wouldn’t really realize the impact weve had on media and everyone else, but the public has definitely acknowledged it as a big deal so it kind of only hit me that history was being made or what a big step this was in swimming, when I started seeing all the mentions on Twitter and all of the articles and stuff.

Before Lia ever won an Olympic medal, her accomplishment of making the US swim team was duly lauded. Essence magazine named her as one its 35 Under 35, Black & Amazing. NYCs VIP celebrities took to Twitter to congratulate Brooklyns newest boss:

Grammy-Award winning singer Alicia Keys, wrote a message of inspiration: I always wanted to be an Olympic swimmer!! Congratulations to @lianeal Amazzing!!!!

Even Katie Couric, the host with the most, stated: Only 17 & 2nd African-American female swimmer to rep us on the @USOlympic team?? Go, Lia!!

Brooklyn’s iconic filmmaker Spike Lee tweeted: Shout Out To 17 Year Old Lia Neal, Sista From Fort Greene, Brooklyn Who Made USA Olympic Swimming Team. Kick Bukoo Ass in London. BK ALL DAY YO.

That aside, the Olympics are my goal next year. Even possibly making the team as an individual swimmer as well as being a relay member. I don’t know specifically what I want to do career-wise for the rest of my life, but I’m majoring in Science Technology, Society and More. My concentration is Information Technology and Media and Society. So I think I want to get into advertising and sports marketing.

Looking further down the road, which is something I dont usually do, the ideal situation would be to make the Olympic Team as a relay and individual swimmer and the more success I have, the more post-swimming opportunities that should bring me. Its like I’m branding myself as I go. I hope everything just falls into place because swimming gives me so much and also prevents me from doing a lot. Because swimming is so time consuming I haven’t had time to do any internships or build experiences like that, but swimming also has exposed me to so many countries and people, so swimming gives you a unique experience in itself.

California is great, but Ill probably be doing all of this future stuff in Brooklyn. I miss Brooklyn. I think I’m going to move back eventually. Its changed so much. Every time I go home Brooklyn is different and kind of makes me feel like I’m not a real New Yorker anymore.

Once a New Yorker always a New Yorker, but I get where Lia is coming from. Her historic accomplishments and world class skills, as well as the dominance of her African-American teammates, have thrusted the trio into a national spotlight. And with the Olympics coming in 2016, Lia’s a symbol of international pride and a “person of interest.” She’s no longer owned by the Planet of Brooklyn. She’s the property of a universe of young, aspiring swimmers whose passion of choice is the water boogie.

All they have to do is study Lia and the words of some fellow Brooklyn-born, hip-hop kings: “All heads realize, (Lia Neal) on the rise. You better recognize.!

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