Lia Neal Announces Retirement from Swimming, Reflects on Her Significant Impact

SW October 2020 - Lia Neal - Working For Change - Co-Founds Swimmers For Change To Promote Diversity and Inclusion
Lia Neal -- Photo Courtesy: FINIS

Lia Neal has been making history for almost a decade, as the second African American female swimmer to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team and win an Olympic medal and the first to accomplish those feats twice. Neal has also swum at three World Championships, winning two relay gold medals in 2017. But after a decade among the elite sprinters in the United States, Neal has decided to retire from competitive swimming.

Neal told Swimming World that when the country shut down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she left her training base in San Diego and returned home to New York. At first, she tried to stay in shape, hoping that life would return to normal relatively quickly and the 2020 Olympic Trials would go on as planned.

“But the pandemic was getting worse, and I realized we weren’t getting back in anytime soon,” Neal said. “It kind of made me realize that with the time and space that we all had to be more introspective, that I’m totally fine being done. There wasn’t a dire need to get back in and race anytime soon.”

As Neal reflected on her decision and her swimming career, she explained that the pandemic-induced layoff allowed her to step back from the grueling, four-year cycle of swimming that stressed the Olympics above all else. Neal gained a different and broader perspective on swimming and life, which helped her come to her decision.

“I had been feeling kind of on the outs with swimming for a few years, but I think in swimming, and being an athlete, we’re trained to always persevere,” Neal said. “That mentality kept me in this sport a little bit longer, and I didn’t realize that I had outgrown the sport at a certain point.”

However, in September, Neal did return to the pool, albeit temporarily. Shortly before the International Swimming League began its second season, Olympic legend and Cali Condors general manager Jason Lezak contacted Neal about signing with his team when he needed more sprinters on his roster. Neal told Lezak that she had not been training, but Lezak asked if Neal could get in shape as quickly as possible. Neal agreed.

“I had three and a half weeks after not swimming for six months to get back into racing shape. I let him know the physical state I was in, and he was OK with it,” Neal said. “I kind of took it as an opportunity to give to myself and use it as one last trial to see if what I had been feeling about being done with swimming was going to be validated because I loved ISL so much the last season.”

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Lia Neal during the 2020 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

Because of the abbreviated timeline, Neal eschewed building up her aerobic base and focused only on sprinting before heading to Budapest, where the entirety of the 2020 ISL season took place. Over the course of the ISL meets, she gradually found her racing form again, and she even mastered some skills that she had never perfected before, like flipturns and kicking. “I never learned how to kick properly, so that was a nice little last-minute learning how to kick before I retired,” Neal said.

Neal helped the Cali Condors capture the ISL league championship, but the experience still reinforced her decision to step away from the competitive side of swimming.

“While I was there, I was having fun, but I was also very aware that I wasn’t as passionate about the sport as I used to be,” Neal said. “It was kind of me coming to the realization that I had officially outgrown the sport, but it was definitely a nice meet to go out on.”


Lia Neal, Her Place in History and Making Change

Before she qualified for her first Olympic team, Neal was oblivious to her status as a trailblazer, a minority swimmer excelling in a mostly white sport. She grew up in New York and swimming for Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics, a diverse team in Manhattan. Even while her competitors at higher-level meets were mostly white, Neal never paid much attention to her status until she qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London and was asked what it meant for her to make history.

Over the next decade, Neal realized how important it was for young black swimmers to see swimmers who look like them competing and winning at the elite level. Seeing that representation can help instill the dream of competing at the Olympics and winning national championships, and it make those accomplishments feel attainable for minority swimmers, compared to only seeing white swimmers at the top.

“It totally makes a difference to see someone who looks like you achieving something great because it makes it seem that much more feasible,” Neal said. “That’s why I now fully embrace that, I understand that I look different compared to a majority of people in the sport. Because of that, I’m using my unique background to be able to be that person for other people because I didn’t see it that much growing up.”

In 2015, Neal was part of a historic finish at the NCAA championships, when Simone Manuel, Neal and Natalie Hinds finished in the top three spots in the 100 free, making it the first-ever 1-2-3 for black swimmers at that meet. Given the sport’s historical lack of diversity, the moment was monumental, but in the long run, Neal hopes for better.

“Hopefully it gets to a point where we don’t have to emphasize race because that’s not a big focal point anymore,” Neal said. “Hopefully it will just be diverse. But obviously we have some time until that.”

In the summer of 2020, racial equality once again became a central topic of conversation in the United States after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Neal brought those conversations to the swimming community when she and fellow 2016 Olympian Jacob Pebley launched Swimmers for Change. That turned into a weeks-long series of webcasts where the duo reached out to national team swimmers, and those swimmers appeared on the webcasts to help raise money for various charitable organizations that promoted inclusion.

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Lia Neal at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“It was started to fill a void of a lack of a conversation, especially in the swimming community. Basically, I just did what made sense, and that was to create a platform to help give swimmers the space to talk about it. I’m just really lucky to have made so many close friends from being on these junior teams and national teams. Just being able to text Natalie Coughlin and Madison Kennedy and Madisyn Cox and Nathan Adrian, all these people, and I’m very grateful that I have that connection to be able to do that, and then even more so grateful that they were on board with it and the way it panned out in the web series,” Neal said.

“Hearing them explain what the charity does and why they chose it, how they relate to it emotionally, just went above and beyond anything I was expecting. It was super touching because I know these people, I reached out to these people because I know they probably feel some type of way about what’s going on and they want to be able to help, but it was cool to see just how deeply they felt about the issues. It wasn’t anything I could have imagined if they didn’t say it themselves on that platform, so that was really cool to be able to do that.”

Going forward, Neal has big plans for Swimmers for Change, and she’s working to get the brand incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. She wants to work towards more water safety programs for minority children and towards creating accessibility and resources for minority swimmers looking to get into swimming and help them reach the elite level by creating a strong sense of community. She wants to make the path for black swimmers trying to reach the elite level a lot smoother, with the eventual goal of having a lot more black swimmers become Olympians.

“As a reflection of my journey throughout swimming, knowing that I’ve had all these scholarships and grants and things that have been bestowed to me, I want to present these opportunities for other people,” Neal said. “Not only have those things helped me keep progressing within swimming, but it’s also helped me in life in general. I want to be able to help people in a swimming capacity, but more importantly, overall, I want to help them in their life trajectory.”


Looking Back and Looking Forward

The highlight of her swimming career, Neal said, was not either of her Olympic appearances or any international occasion. Instead, it was the 2017 NCAA swimming championships, when Neal led her Stanford team to a national championship. She was not necessarily the superstar on a team that included Manuel and Katie Ledecky, who were coming off historic individual accomplishments at the Olympic Games, but she was the senior leader and clutch relay performer.

“I say it’s my proudest achievement because swimming all four years is super exhausting, super hard, and you’re with your teammates, the people in the class above you and below you for three years, so you’re just going through all these really life-changing, life-forming experiences together, so it just means so much more to achieve the pinnacle of college athletics together. Whereas the Olympics is super cool, too, obviously, but you’re only teammates for a month max. It’s a super accelerated way of bringing together,” Neal said. “So that’s why it just meant a lot more to win with a team, with girls I’ve trained with every day for multiple years, compared to the Olympic medal.”

Neal was always at her best on relays, where she could “just go on autopilot and just focus on racing and getting my hand on the wall first.” In her individual races, however, Neal believes she tended to overanalyze her swimming to a fault. That’s why, as she hangs up the cap and goggles, she still believes she has untapped potential that she never reached, goals for individual events that she did not reach.

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Lia Neal hugs Stanford teammate Simone Manuel during the 2017 NCAA championships, when Stanford captured a national championship — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

And that’s OK. Towards the end of her career, Neal realized that it’s healthy to know when a goal is worth devoting energy to and when it’s OK to walk away. Success is subjective and not a firm measure equivalent for each individual swimmer. Now that she’s removed from the thick of battling for a spot in another Olympics, Neal is more than proud of her accomplishments and ready to take her next steps in swimming, which includes promoting diversity as well as continuing to mentor athletes and help them grow, both in swimming and in life, to “package all the lessons I’ve learned in a very concise way.”

Even in the moments that felt like disappointments at the time, Neal learned and grew, and all those experiences helped form a swimmer who made history in the pool and will continue contributing to positive change now that her racing days are done.

“There are definitely things that I would do differently now, but I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Neal said. “I had been thinking about a lot of things I would have done differently, but I wouldn’t know to do those things differently if it hadn’t happen the way that it did happen. So I think I’m totally fine with how everything played out.”

Lia Neal’s career in photos:

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10 comments

  1. avatar
    SETH

    Bravo! Congratulations on your career and life choices, you are an inspiration!

  2. avatar
    Lem peterkin

    Congratulations to a wonderful career .

  3. avatar
    Jim Jacobs

    It doesn’t get better than you. Thank you for being you.

    Best,

    Jim

    Jim Jacobs
    jacobs.jim@gmail.com

  4. avatar
    Basir Mchawi

    Congratulations Lia! You have inspired so many young people both in and outside of swimming. All the best in your future endeavors!

  5. avatar
    D.Batts

    Continued success in your future endeavors. Remember as your dad would say… “you’re marvelistic”

  6. avatar
    Anonymous

    Continued success in your future endeavors. Remember as your dad would say… “you’re marvelistic”

  7. avatar
    MJ.Cooper

    Congratulations! You have made a difference and will continue withSwimmers For Change. God bless you.

  8. avatar
    SWO

    Congrats young lady, keep shining, the ancestors are proud

  9. avatar
    SF, MD

    Congratulations on your accomplishments. Best wishes for your nonprofit, and for your future.

  10. avatar
    Dawn Ree

    Thank you for inspiring me a long time. Great swim career and best future wishes.