Feature by Shoshanna Rutemiller
Last year, Lia Neal, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn, NY was a surprise qualifier for the London Olympics. The Asphalt Green swimmer, who is of Chinese and African-American descent, qualified to compete on the women's 4×100 freestyle relay after finishing fourth at the US Olympic Trials in the 100 freestyle. But, by the time Neal had her bags packed for London, it had been only three month since the high school student had even set her sights on the Olympics.
“I didn't really expect to make it, even though I told myself I was going to train toward the Olympics. I didn't really think I could actually make it until after the Charlotte UltraSwim the March before Trials,” Neal told Swimming World. Neal placed first in the 100 meter freestyle at the meet, touching just one one-hundredth faster than Jessica Hardy and a few tenths faster than Natalie Coughlin.
“I had never won an event at a National-level competition. So even though [Coughlin] and [Hardy] added a little bit of time, it was a best time for me,” Neal said. “It was kind of an awakening for me. That was the moment that I convinced myself that I could make the team, because I had just beaten the best of the best.”
Neal went on to win a bronze medal in the women's 4×100 relay alongside Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy and Allison Schmitt. The team set an American Record in the event (3:34.24) and finished third behind teams from Australia and the Netherlands. The medal was a long time coming for Neal, who confesses that she's spent most of her life in the water.
“I've always been in the pool, since I was two,” she said. “I would go in the baby pool and splash around. By the time I was six, I enrolled in swim lessons because my classmates and friends were taking swim lessons.”
Neal competed in her first “big meet” at age 12, travelling across the country to California to race in the Santa Clara Grand Prix.
“What sets [Santa Clara] apart is it has a pancake station. The older kids on our team at the time would always rave about how awesome Santa Clara is. When I finally got to go, I understood it. It was California, beautiful weather…food!”
At the meet, Neal had her first opportunity to race against her long-time swim idol, Olympic gold medalist and world record setter, Natalie Coughlin.
“When I first got into swimming, I didn't really know anything about it, but I did know who Natalie Coughlin was,” Neal said. “She was very much on everyone's radar and the all-American girl of swimming. I really looked up to her and it was really cool to finally meet her; like, not only see her but race against her in person.”
Both Neal and Coughlin qualified for the finals in the women's 50 freestyle at the Grand Prix. Neal recalls a minor hiccup during the finals parade.
“[Coughlin] was walking out ahead of me and stopped at my lane. I was so confused because I've always had this thing where I'm unsure of myself and I think whatever anyone else does is more correct. So I just stood there.”
Fortunately, Coughlin recognized her error and moved to the correct lane, but Neal still laughs at the memory of facing her idol under such unusual circumstances. The two swimmers eventually become National teammates, competing together for the United States at the London Olympics.
More unusual that her experience racing Coughlin is that Neal's first time travelling internationally with the US National team was to the Olympics, the biggest sporting event in the world. Neal still has trouble disguising the awe in her voice when she recalls her first experience in the athlete village.
“When we first walked into the Village, we were just walking to our dorms. Outside the building they were handing out our opening and closing ceremony outfits. We had so much uniforming! It was kind of overwhelming.”
“Then we got to walk around the Village, and that was really cool because I've never been in an athlete village before. I think they have that for [Pan Pacific Championships], but this was my first one,” she said. “Like, I can't believe it exists. It's so weird to kind of think that there's an 'athlete village.' It's just a weird concept.”
One year later, and Neal had committed to swim at Stanford in the fall under head coach Greg Meehan. This means she'll have to leave longtime club team Asphalt Green and coach Rachel Stratton-Mills. Stratton-Mills has been with Asphalt Green for about three years, and her coaching was key to putting Neal on the Olympic team.
“As I matured as a person and as we've spend more time together, we've grown to form a closer relationship,” Neal said about their coach-athlete relationship. “I see her as a friend and well as a coach.”
“I don't really know what to expect [at Stanford],” said Neal when asked what she's most looking forward to in the fall. “I'm still excited to just be with the team and college swimming in general. I want to see what I can do differently and learn from the coaches and my teammates.”
Although Neal became an Olympic medalist before her 18th birthday, there's still one thing she has to do: travel to China, the country of her mother's heritage. Neal is fluent in Cantonese because her mother raised Neal and her three brothers in a bilingual household.
“She just felt more comfortable speaking in Chinese to my brother and I when we were younger,” explained Neal. “I would talk to my mom in Chinese and then I would turn around and talk to my dad in English. I also went to Chinese pre-K, where they taught everything in Cantonese.”
So is a summer trip to China in the cards before Neal moves across the country?
“My mom wanted to plan a summer trip to China for all of us before I left for college, but now they have a bird flu epidemic there so I don't think we'll go.”
Neal is featured in the upcoming July issue of Swimming World Magazine, as part of a larger feature on USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash campaign. Also included in the July magazine is Neal's Swimming World Quiz, where she answers questions about her biggest fears, favorite things to do after practice and races, and much more! CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!