NEW YORK—Brooklyn native Lia Neal is a 17-year-old swimmer who is competing in the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. Neal recalls one of her earliest experiences in the water. During a beginner swimming lesson, Neal raced with older children, losing badly—she stopped at 25 meters.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she joked.
This time, racing against the country’s top swimmers—with many that are twice her age—Neal placed fourth in the 100-meter freestyle race at the Olympic trials Saturday night.
Many kids dream of going to the Olympics. For Neal, “it didn’t seem possible until a month ago,” she said at a press conference at Asphalt Green Thursday.
African-American Dad, Hong Kong Mom
Neal’s father, Rome Neal, and her mother, Siu Neal, met at the New York City College of Technology—neither were athletes. Siu studied accounting in college, and Rome Neal is now a theater director.
“I knew nothing about sports,” Siu said.
Neal began to take swimming lessons for fun at age 6. At 8 years old, Neal told her mother she wanted to start swimming competitively.
Since then, Siu has attended nearly every swim meet, and driven her daughter to each practice—arriving at 5:30 a.m. sharp.
You could say Siu has picked up a little something about sports over the years.
“She is a coach on the sidelines. … It gets annoying at times,” Neal joked.
Neal’s father is busy with work most of the time. He is a theater director and curator of a music and spoken word program: Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Rome said, “It was inevitable” for her to go to the Olympics. “She’s been breaking records—the only record left for her to break is at the Olympics.”
Neal said he still sees the Olympic swimmer as the little girl who danced to Patti LaBelle in a tutu.
Will to win every race
Ordinarily, Neal is “shy, quiet, and personable,” her father said. Like everyone else, Neal likes to go out to eat with her friends; she likes to stop by Chinatown for food after practice.
Neal, like everyone else, has her off days too. There are frustrating times when her “stroke is just not right.” But Neal has a particular resilience that her coach links to her success.
Neal’s favorite stroke is the breaststroke, because, she said, she’s bad at it.
Over the last year or so, Rachel Stratton-Mills, head coach at Asphalt Green, began to notice Neal’s strong will to win every race—no matter how small.
“I saw her turn to some of the boys in the group and kind of give it a little back to them, saying ‘You better watch out, I’m going to beat you on this one,’” Stratton-Mills said. “When that started occurring, I thought this could really be coming together for the Olympics.”
“As an athlete … you need to have some confidence, almost to the point of over confidence,” Stratton-Mills said.
Competing against an Olympian
During Neal’s semifinals, she sprinted against Allison Schmitt—one of America’s top swimmers. Schmitt took home a bronze during the 2008 Olympics.
“I turned to my assistant coach and said ‘I think we’re in trouble,’” Stratton-Mills said.
But before Neal entered the ready room, she told her coach: “‘I’m really excited to race Allison,’” Stratton-Mills recalled.
“These are one of the things, maturity-wise, that pushed [Neal] to the next level,” Stratton-Mills said.
Neal will compete in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay at the London Olympics. She is only the second African-American female swimmer to compete in the Olympics.
Stratton-Mills said it is considered exceptional when a 21-year-old enters the Olympics, let alone a 17-year-old still in high school.
Neal has been at Asphalt Green of nine years. Asphalt Green is a nonprofit organization that has a 50-meter Olympic-status pool, providing use for the elite, as well as free swimming lessons for low-income children.
A better place
Asphalt Green is trying to make the city a better place.
Around 40 percent of New York children are overweight or obese, a rate higher than the national average, according to the city government.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for children.
A 2010 national study found that 70 percent of African-American children, and 58 percent of Hispanic children, cannot swim. African-American children are three times more likely to drown than white children, according to the study.One of the organization’s community programs—Waterproofing— has been teaching over 30,000 public school children to swim since 1933.
Carol Tweedy, executive director of Asphalt Green, said before the building was first built 19 years ago, the land was nothing but a “dilapidated playground and tennis court.”
Producing distinguished swimmers has been their dream since the building opened, Tweedy said. That dream has become real with Neal.
Stratton-Mills said she met an African-American mother earlier that day at the pool. The mother has two daughters, with “hair just like Lia’s.” Both girls wanted to take up swimming after seeing Neal on television.
“That’s what it’s about, the ability to say ‘I look like that person, or I’m from Brooklyn—or another inner city that people don’t think of as a swimming hub—but if Lia Neal can do it, I can do it as well,’” Stratton-Mills said.
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