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Lia Neal: A Journey in the Making

7/12/2012

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

MANHATTAN – Lia Neal is sleeping. It’s 10:45am on a Thursday morning. In another room await 3 TV cameras, 2 dSLR cameras, 20 reporters, and a gathering of onlookers, supporters, and Asphalt Green staff. While they wait in a hallway, I spot Lia on the floor in the Asphalt Green pool complex. She’s curled up in Asphalt Green warm-ups sleeping – or trying to. She rests in plain view near the coach’s office, even though it’s fairly loud inside the pool. Even though she’s about to give probably the biggest press conference of her life, she’s trying to sleep. Just for a few minutes.

As I walk past, Lia looks up. “Hi,” I say. She blinks. “Congratulations on making the Olympic team.”Lia Neal (medium)

“Thank you so much,” she smiles amicably, then re-closes her eyes.

In a few minutes, Lia will talk to the press and TV cameras. Reporters will ask about her journey. They will ask about being the second woman of African American descent to qualify for the U.S. swim team. They will ask how she, at age 17, was able to come from downtown Brooklyn – a borough where no 50m indoor pools exist – and become one of the nation’s most promising young athletic stars. They will ask about balancing school and practice, nerves, role models, and, of course, diversity in swimming.

But for the time being, Lia Neal is sleeping. A quick power nap, two hours after her live CNN interview. I leave her be. I walk to the press conference. I sit next to a woman writing in what looks to be Chinese on a paper pad. I am handed a pamphlet about Asphalt Green and a few printed articles regarding Lia. Around me, there are local NBC, Fox, and NY1 affiliates. Some reporters speak in thick, Brooklyn accents. Others speak in languages I don’t know. The attendees are nearly as diverse as New York City itself.

“We’re so proud of Lia and everything she represents,” says Carol Tweedy, Executive Director of Asphalt Green. Tweedy explains that this has been a dream of Asphalt Green – to have an Olympian. She says when Asphalt Green’s pristine, 50m indoor pool was built 19 years ago over a dilapidated tennis court, this was their dream. This was their mission. Tweedy later tells me that this specific aspiration to be the best is just “part of our DNA.”

It is the DNA of Lia’s story that makes her ascension so interesting. Not only her literal DNA and heritage – Lia’s mother is from Hong Kong, her father is African American – but the fact that Lia is not your prototypical sprinter. She sleeps minutes before press conferences. She gets Twitter shout-outs from Alicia Keys, but doesn’t let it go to her head. She is soft-spoken and humble, but she is an Olympic sprinter – an event notoriously belonging to only the uber-confident. She has the gifts to succeed and win, but only recently has displayed that outward competitiveness. It is part of a maturation process for Neal, one that, as I look around the crowded press conference, will begin much sooner than later.

It seems fitting that both the 19-year-old Asphalt Green’s pool and 17-year-old Lia Neal are maturing together in new, although not quite unexpected, ways.

Diversity In Swimming
That the second ever U.S. female swimmer of African American descent comes from Asphalt Green seems appropriate. Asphalt Green has been referred to as “the most diverse swim team in America.” Rachel Stratton-Mills, head coach of Asphalt Green, tells me that of the 20 kids on her National Team, maybe 5 speak English as their first language at home.

“We are so diverse in New York City,” says Stratton-Mills. “No one thinks about it. We’re the spectrum in a different way – no one stands out here.”

Diversity is abundant everywhere in New York, which is why Lia -- before her 4th place finish at the Olympic Trials in the 100m freestyle -- had never really given the issue much thought. When Lia was first asked about becoming the second swimmer of African American descent to make the Olympics, she had never really contemplated it before. I even heard an interviewer say, “Do you realize that makes you different?” Stratton-Mills claims that this thought process will aid her maturation, and that Lia needs to pinpoint her own emotion about it.

“We have so much diversity and backgrounds and skin colors and different languages, it hasn’t been something she’s thought of,” says Stratton-Mills. “It’s something she’s going to have to start thinking on her own.”

Because she will be asked this question about diversity in swimming. She will be asked again, and again, and again. For now, Lia seems OK with it.

“I’m fine talking about diversity,” Lia says. “I never really thought about it until people started asking me about it, but it’s fine.”

But these are heady topics for teenagers – for anyone, really. Jeff Commings once said that when he became the first African American male to compete at the Pan American Games as a teenager back in the ‘90s, he was asked similar questions. He had never really thought about it before. Growing up, Jeff swam for an all-black boys swim team. Diversity was not an “issue.” Suddenly, leading up to the 1992 Olympic Trials, Jeff was thrust into the diversity-in-swimming-spotlight. As a young swimmer, those are pretty big issues to think about, let alone speak to the media about.

When I asked Lia if she is uncomfortable talking about all this, Lia says, “It’s a tough question to answer when they ask you, ‘What does it mean?’ Because being on [Asphalt Green] is being on a diverse team. [Diversity] never comes up. Now that people are paying more attention to that, it’s making me see it more and more. But that’s fine. Swimming is growing to being a more diverse sport.”

Maturing, Learning, Growing
There were moments along the way when Stratton-Mills saw it coming. When she saw Lia change and morph. Lia is a girl who doesn’t like to stand out. Lia enjoys fitting in with her friends and being one with the group. She doesn’t necessarily like the spotlight. And when you meet Lia, you think the same thing: you think she’s a very nice, humble, laid-back teenager from New York. You’d never suspect she was a sprinting superstar.

“Lia, since I’ve known her, does not want to stand out,” says Stratton-Mills. “She loves her group of friends. She didn’t want to be the special one in the group and be treated differently than her friends.”

One moment Stratton Mills saw Lia begin to change came in practice. Lia turned to a boy swimmer in practice and said, playfully, “I’m going to beat you.” She had never done this before. Just to make that transition -- that realization -- of acknowledging swimming is a competitive endeavor is a huge undertaking for some. Another moment was at the Charlotte Grand Prix, when Lia texted Stratton-Mills before a race, “I want to win.” She had never expressed these desires before.

“She was always afraid to say, ‘I want to win,’” Stratton-Mills says. “That was always different than that feeling of, ‘I don’t want to be different than my friends.’ She’s realizing she can be both.”

Walking the Asphalt Green pool deck, amid the reporters, TV cameras, and everyone else, you get the sensation something is happening. Lives are changing. Not only for Lia Neal, who virtually punched her ticket to any college and future opportunities she wants -- who can forever call herself an Olympian, who was Tweeted at by Spike Lee and Alicia Keys (Lia says “It was really cool!”) -- but also for her coach, Stratton-Mills.

“My career has changed now,” Stratton-Mills says. “I’m excited because just as Lia is a ground breaker in terms of being the second African American to make the team, I’m proud to be a female coach putting an athlete on the team.”

At just 17, Lia’s (and everyone around her) life is changing, but she also has the makings of a superstar. She has the confidence of someone learning how to accept – and hope for -- victory. It can be an uncomfortable position to turn and say to someone, “I’m going to beat you.” But competition is part of sport. It’s why athletes compete. Lia is learning that you can embrace both sides of a complex personality – the humble, friendly, amicable girl, and also, the girl who wants to win.

Stratton-Mills reflects on that practice moment.

“That was a moment when I stepped back. It was all in jest, but that’s when I thought, ‘She’s starting to come together.’”

From a Tragedy Comes Good
When the planes hit the twin towers on September 11th, no one could have predicted this. Something good arising from this horrific, terrible event. But in the aftermath of 9/11’s tragedy, a scholarship program was started in memoriam of two Asphalt Green Masters swimmers, Andrew Fisher and Doug Irgang, who died on 9/11. That program, “Swim for the Future,” provides scholarships to talented and dedicated swimmers to continue swimming at Asphalt Green. And so, nearly eleven years after the horrific happenings on September 11th, 2001, Lia Neal becomes the first “Swim For the Future” scholarship recipient to qualify for the Olympics.

It is a beautiful story of a city growing something from the ashes, turning something horrific into something inspirational. Like many things in New York City, the story has two very different but reciprocal constituents: Lia Neal’s maturation of confidence and the community who helped her get there. As Lia Neal splashed home to 4th place, swimming in the most intense competition in the world, you couldn’t help but think of the different constituents of her story: The “Swim for the Future” scholarship program. The 50m facility. The coaches who aspired to be the best. The Asphalt Green staff and board who supported them. Stratton-Mills, one of the few female head coaches to put an Olympian on the roster. Those moments in practice. Those moments at meets. Her diverse group of friends. Her family. And Lia herself – charging to the wall, chasing down those around her.

New York City is a place where, as they say, you can do anything. You can be anyone. So when Carol Tweedy said she was proud of what Lia Neal represents, she meant two things:

A beautiful young woman. And a beautiful city.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.