Asphalt Green Honors Masters Swimmers Who Died in 9/11 With Memorial Scholarships

Feature by Chelsea Howard

NEW YORK, New York, September 9. ASPHALT Green Unified Aquatics (AGUA) has a scholarship program that was created in memory of two Master swimmers who died in the events of 9/11. Now 10 years later an Olympic hopeful, Lia Neal, is honored with this scholarship.

The scholarship, Swim for the Future (SFF), was started in 2001 in memory of Andrew Fisher and Doug Irgang, who left an impact on members of AGUA.

"While I did not know Andrew or Doug, I have felt privileged to learn about them through the scholarship process. They were hard-working and shared an incredible dedication to swimming and their Masters teammates," head coach Rachel Stratton-Mills said.

During the past 10 years, 142 scholarships have been given out to 72 deserving athletes.

"This is a need-based scholarship that makes it possible for talented, dedicated children who need financial support to be part of the Asphalt Green competitive team," Stratton-Mills said.

Although financial need is the main component of choosing which athlete receives the scholarship, the committee also looks at the athletes' attendance and commitment to competitive swimming. The committee bases this on coach evaluations and an essay written by the athlete on what swimming and this scholarship means to them.

"The SFF scholarship has helped me and my family so much. Several people suggested AGUA to me because of its reputation. I swam for a year without the scholarship but my family couldn't afford for me to keep swimming here without it," Neal said.

Neal believes that this scholarship is one of the main reasons why she is able to compete at the level she is at now.

"Without the scholarship, I don't think I'd still be able to swim so I am appreciative for everyone who started this scholarship program," Neal said.

Thankful to have the opportunity to be a member of AGUA, Neal brings a selfless attitude to the team.

"Lia is a very team-oriented athlete and enjoys the social aspect of her training. She is supportive of those around her and adds fun to travel trips and dryland, always supplying the team music," Stratton-Mills said.

Stratton-Mills, who has worked at AGUA for the past year, has learned a lot about Neal and has tried different ways of motivating her.

"Lia constantly surprises me with how much speed she produces in practice. I try to give open-ended expectations, letting her know that there is no limit to how fast she can go in practice," Stratton-Mills said.

Taking the idea of limitless training to competitions, Neal's confidence saw a boost this past summer after World Junior Championship in Lima, Peru and Junior Nationals at Stanford University.

"These meets really helped Lia's confidence in her ability to regularly perform at a high level. World Junior Champs was her third straight week of competing yet she was still able to get up on the blocks and perform race after race," Stratton-Mills said.

With the 2012 Olympic Trials quickly approaching, Neal will take past experiences to prepare for the meet in Omaha, Nebraska.

"Competing at World Junior Champs against some of the best in the world made me realize that I belong at this level. At Junior Nationals this past summer, I felt good going into the race and wasn't worried about being too far ahead or about finishing the race. I was able to finish the race strong, giving me confidence in this event for this summer," Neal said.

Along with having more confidence this year, Stratton and Neal are making adjustments going into the 2012 Olympic Trials from her past experience in 2008. "It was a shock for me to even make my Olympic Trial cut in 2008. I just wanted to do well at the meet but didn't think I'd have a chance at making the team. As of right now, I'm seeded 6th in the 200 free which gives me a pretty good chance at making the team. I just need to be able to secure my spot," Neal said.

Even though Neal had a different coach last Olympic Trials, Stratton knows the whole approach is going to have to be different this summer.

"We have six high school athletes who have trials now. Preparation will be much more event specific and we will be spending more time during the next 10 months focusing on swimming fast in the morning," Stratton-Mills said.

To accomplish what Neal has up to this point comes from an extreme amount of motivation.

"The SFF scholarship motivates me to keep competing. I want to say thank-you to the families who have made this possible for me, not only verbally, but also through my performances. When I swim, it's like I'm representing Andrew and Doug along with myself, my team and my family," Neal said.