20 Question Extra: Lia Neal
By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Since her bronze as a teen at the 2012 Olympics in London, Lia Neal has been earning medals, mostly gold, and making history. She has gold from 2015 WUGs and bronze from 2015 Worlds. And at NCAAs in 2015, she made history, claiming silver as Stanford teammate Simone Manuel took first and Florida’s Natalie Hinds took third for an all African-American podium in the 100 free, the first time that has happened in U.S. swimming history. The Brooklyn native talks about that, and explains what Black History is to her, in this 20 Question Extra.
1. So happy birthday from last week, how is it possible that you are 21 already?
Lia: I guess (laughs) that is kind of weird! I think once you turn 20 that’s the big change. Or it was for me, not being a teen-ager anymore.
2. What does having a month dedicated to Black History mean to you?
Lia: Black History Month is cool; we have a month dedicated to reflect on all the great things that historically prominent black figures have accomplished and are still accomplishing to make history in the present, and for the future. It’s easy to take it for granted sometimes, so it’s important to recognize how far we have come and appreciate everything that’s been done for us. The path they have laid for us -- and where we go with it from here.
3. You are diverse within your family with a Chinese mother and African-American father -- you speak Chinese, right?
Lia: Yes, and I’m definitely immersed in my Chinese culture. Like I know the superstitions from my grandma that were passed down to my mom, and celebrating Chinese New Year, things like that. It’s so ingrained in my life -- home remedies, Chinese dishes -- that I don’t give it a second thought because it’s such a part of who I am.
4. While swimmers in some area see less diversity, what was it like in New York as a young swimmer?
Lia: I think just New York being so diverse that I never noticed a racial disparity when I swam because I’m constantly surrounded by different people with different backgrounds, whether it was in school or swimming or just being around my friends. I went to school in China Town growing up, so there were a bunch of different cultures in my class, and my teammates (for swimming) were pretty diverse.
5. Simone Manuel said she felt alone at times as a young swimmer, but being where you were, you didn’t experience that as much then?
Lia: My situation was kind of different from Simone’s because my surroundings were pretty diverse. So I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But the more I swam and improved, in the back of my mind I did notice that the National Team was not as diverse as what I was surrounded by on a daily basis -- when I started following the team, there were Cullen, Maritza, and Tony.
6. Of all the great things about your school, Stanford, how much is the diversity a key to the atmosphere?
Lia: I think that’s one of the cooler things about Stanford -- how as a campus and community it is made up of so many cultures and backgrounds. You are very exposed to samples of the world, all in one community.
7. What does the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King mean to you?
Lia: I have reflected on Dr. King several times, and I start with how brave he was. And brave is an understatement just to be one of the first to speak out and deliver that kind of message, especially when at first he was getting more backlash than support. So he had to be persistent. It was amazing, in the world as it was then, that he could accomplish so much and reach so many by persevering to deliver a message that we are all created equal, and then have that message be carried on and inspire others for such an incredibly long time, as it does today.
8. Even before you made the Olympic team, a lot of eyes were on you in New York -- did you know the effect you were having as a young teenager?
Lia: I think it was harder to grasp just the impact that I was having, or how many people maybe it was reaching, because I wasn’t seeing them first hand or dealing with them first hand. But I think I took it in stride and went on doing my own thing because that part in itself is what inspired kids to begin with -- working hard, studying hard, and just being myself. So it was easy enough to continue doing my thing, working hard in and out of the pool, because my goal was to continue to improve and perform well. Obviously that kind of attention is flattering, but it’s also humbling, because you have to stay focused and keep challenging yourself. I’ve been very blessed to have so many supporting me.
9. At the Olympics, being on that incredible relay in the finals -- when did it sink in how historic that was?
Lia: It didn’t hit me then and there; it came out a little bit later that it was the first time an African American woman had swum for the U.S. in the finals, so it was pretty cool to hear that later. But it the moment, what’s on your mind is doing your best, nothing else.
10. Speaking of history, when did it set in for you what Simone, you and Natalie Hinds did last spring sweeping the 100 free at NCAA Championships?
Lia: I guess that kind of resonated more standing on the podium and seeing everyone so happy at how we place. It’s hard for me to think about making history or contextualizing it in that moment; it was more just looking around (laughs), and thinking, “Well now, this is new.”
11. It showed me what competitors you are when I talked to you both and you were focused more on the placings at first, or was that the case?
Lia: It’s great when you go 1-2 with a teammate, and Simone is my Stanford teammate, which made it really special. We definitely got to know Natalie more after that happened, and I think we were all really touched and surprised by how much people talked about it and proud that it meant a lot to so many people.
12. So your major is science, technology and society -- what do you do for that specifically, and does swimming fit into it?
Lia: That’s a good (laughs) question. My major is pretty broad. Swimming doesn’t directly translate in one sense, but I can see how my past experiences have helped me along the way of taking classes or my major or to kind of apply things I have learned in the past, from my interests or even how (the NCAA podium) reached so many people so fast through (social media).
13. How are you now in the cycle of the run-up to Trials and the Olympic Games?
Lia: I think I am in a very good spot right now. Each year I have been training better than the year before, with the exception of 2013, but I am pretty happy with where I am now. I feel like I have been improving my consistency in my training and with my nutrition, and doing things for the good of my health and just doing everything I need to do to perform at my best.
14. Going through this, a quad, the second time, while not being easier, certainly the experience helps, doesn’t it?
Lia: It can if you do it right. I am very fortunate that everything is going in an upward trend for what I am hoping to do in the summer, and I am hoping that this trend continues and I keep improving. But I also remember to have fun with it, because I don’t know how much longer I’ll be swimming so I want to make the most of every experience -- dual meets, conference, NCAAs and Trials -- so I can be better than I was in the past.
15. You mentioned 2013 and you know it better than I ever will, but doesn’t a down-time like that, after the Olympics as a teen, sort of propel you forward more than anything else?
I mean, there’s a saying that goes something like you have to fail before you succeed, or even one step up and two steps back. So 2013 was a step back for me. I wasn’t completely regretful of training that year, I wanted to take a break after 2012, and it was a good break mentally, and I was not at the top of my training for a year. Finally, I got back into that mindset and that really helped me put things into perspective, and understand better what I need to do.
16. Your 100 is so solid but you also have more front end speed, yet with the maturity now you can do the 200 -- will you do the 200?
Lia: I know the 100 is still my baby, where most of my focus is. So I guess when people ask me about the 200, I don’t really have an answer right away because the 200 free is something I have struggled with mentally. I am just (laughs) scared of that event! That’s one of those things that, when you do it, is always going to hurt, so this year I have had a better mental approach to it.
17. While the pros and some of your current and future teammates do long course, you stayed on the team. Every situation is different, but in terms of where it might help, do your turns maybe benefit from doing more short course during this part of the quad?
Lia: My turns have definitely gone a lot better. I dropped a bunch of time in short-course events once I came to college. It was like age-group swimming again, dropping a lot of time. My turns have gotten faster, but they can still be better, and that’s something we always work on.
18. What leads to this kind of sustained success for someone like you?
Lia: Well, thank you first of all. I haven’t thought about it that way, because there’s so much more I have to do, to do what I want to do. But anything I have done has certainly been helped by a great support system, and I am so thankful because I have always had that. My family first and foremost, but also my teammates, friends and coaches who have impacted me in my life along the way. It’s definitely shaped the person I am becoming today. Because of that support, I am able to handle anything that is thrown at me and I am very grateful for that and everyone who has helped me. I’m also pretty happy, and I think being content is an important part of life.
19. What does Simone mean to you?
Lia: She is amazing. And I think it is really great having her as a teammate. I’ve definitely become a better swimmer since I started training with her. She really pushes me. She holds me to a higher standard when I swim next to her. I can’t just be comfortable with where I am because she forces me to push myself. We push each other. That’s how we improve. It’s also great because she’s hilarious; Simone’s a very open person, very outgoing, I think it’s great to have that sometimes. You won’t be at the top of your game or completely happy every day, so it’s good to have someone with her attitude, especially if you are stressed about something in school or are working through something.
20. What is swimming’s role in combatting racism, or even in just generating more diversity in the sport?
Lia: I definitely believe the basis of racism is ignorance; that not being properly educated is the predominant problem with racism. So any little bit of light we can shed on different cultures and educating people about the world around them will slowly diminish it.
My role within swimming is to spread the message of how great swimming is as a lifestyle, but first how important water safety is because preventing drowning is the most important thing -- to save lives.
I think as far as swimming as a sport, we have a great opportunity now, in teaching so many black children to swim, with them being able to see how much fun it is and get more people involved because it helps you develop into a better student and even as a thinker. Plus, swimming is a very easy thing to have fun doing. A couple of days ago, I had a few minutes, for the first time in a long time, to just float around the pool instead of swimming up and down it. So I could just feel the water. That helps me rediscover what swimming means to me, and how much I enjoy it. In addition just to the wonderful feel of the water, it’s a great way for me to clear my mind. The easiest thing to forget as a competitive swimmer, and the most fun thing to remember, is just how great it is to swim, and to enjoy being in the water.