Fairly or not, elite U.S. swimmers seem to spring from largely white, suburban pools of the country, which makes Lia Neal stand out.
Hailing from Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, the 17-year-old Neal made the Olympic team Saturday night after coming in fourth in the 100-meter freestyle, winning a spot on the relay team that will compete in London.
Neal, whose father is African-American and mother is Chinese, has been mentored by the likes of Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt, who have traveled with rising young swimmers as they gain experience competing in Moscow, Berlin and Stockholm.
“I still get starstruck,” she said of her now Olympic teammate Phelps. “He’s really supportive. ... Every night he would give us a motivational speech.”
She paid Schmitt, who's now her relay teammate, what might be the ultimate teenage compliment, calling her “chill.”
That she is now a role model, especially to children of color who don’t see many swimmers who look like them, is flattering, Neal said, even if she feels a bit young to be viewed that way.
“I just hope this inspires more people to join the sport,” she said.
Neal, touchingly, couldn't stop crying after making the team, a reminder of just how young some of these swimmers are and how very intense the trials experience can be. By the time she got back to her hotel, where her parents, brother, kids from her swim team and “random” guests had gathered to congratulate her, “I was all cried out at that point,” she said. By Sunday morning, she seemed quite abashed at her perfectly understandable emotions.
“I didn’t realize how mentally tough you have to be,” she said. “Nobody else is breaking down, making the Olympic team.”
She and the Colorado phenom Missy Franklin, who also made the relay team Saturday night, are the same age, and have bonded since meeting as the two youngest swimmers at the 2008 trials.
"She embraced me when I was completely broken down," Neal said, calling Franklin "the female Phelps."
With no swim teams in her neighborhood, she trains at Asphalt Green United Aquatics on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
She is the second African-American woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team, after Maritza Correia, who won a silver in 2004 in the same event Neal has qualified for. Neal said she had friended Correia on Facebook before the older swimmer knew who she was, and was thrilled to receive “a really heartfelt email” congratulating her on making the team and telling her “to enjoy every moment of it.”
Cullen Jones, the Charlotte-based African-American swimmer who made his second Olympic team this week, spoke with Neal before her 100-free race –- all about the business at hand.
“He was basically giving me race strategy,” she said. “Go out strong.”