Black History Month: Lia Neal is Honored
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
On Monday, Lia Neal was welcomed on the “Today Show.” The short 4-minute segment was dedicated towards honoring TheGrio.com’s 100 List – a list that celebrates 100 African Americans who are making a difference in “sports, entertainment, politics, education, and more.” It was part of February’s Black History Month celebration, a month dedicated to recognizing African Americans, honoring important figures of the past and looking forward towards the future.
“We wanted to do something where each year we can celebrate African American history month in a different way,” said David Wilson, Executive Editor of TheGrio.com, which is an African American news website. “We always honor our past, but we also want to honor the folks who are coming forward today who are going to be doing great things to come.”
Certainly, you can’t find a more fitting candidate on that list than Neal, 2012 Olympian and winner of an Olympic bronze medal in the 400 freestyle relay. Neal, who is half-African American and half-Chinese, has all the potential in the world. She has the confidence of an Olympic medal while still in high school. Next autumn, she’ll attend Stanford, one of the top academic and athletic institutions in the nation.
“You can’t find a list of better citizens,” Wilson told the Today Show. “This list is really about 100 Americans who happen to be black.”
Neal, who trains in New York City at Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics, looked even more relaxed and comfortable in front of the cameras Monday than during last summer’s London 2012 media onslaught. Sitting cross-legged next to Al Roker, Neal was poised and articulate, speaking about what she would say to younger kids and athletes who may look up to her (though she’s just a teenager herself.)
“Keep to it,” Neal said. “Keep to a goal. It’s not going to be 100 percent easy. You just have to be persistent and you will eventually achieve what you want to achieve.”
Since London, Neal’s life has taken on an entirely new direction. One minute she was another dedicated high school student-athlete slogging the aquatic miles, putting in the hard work, and training at AGUA under stellar head coach Rachel Stratton-Mills. The next minute, she’s an Olympian, signing autographs, being interviewed by tens and hundreds of media organizations in her news-crazed New York City, meeting celebrities and getting social media shout-outs from figures like Spike Lee.
“She exemplifies what this list is all about,” Wilson said. “We see Lia’s going to have a very bright future. We want to see Lia down in Brazil in 2016.”
This month, we honor African Americans who not only have accomplished amazing things in the sport of swimming, but will continue to be a presence for years to come. Lia Neal burst onto the international swimming scene last summer, but everyone who knew Neal understood it was only a matter of time before her athletic greatness was revealed. In London, she gained the confidence. Now she looks the part – poised, comfortable in front of the cameras, more mature and self-assured than ever.
“She’s quite poised and accomplished,” Wilson said. “She’s an inspiration to a lot of African American women.”
Neal, who lives in Brooklyn (a borough with the population of Chicago but without an indoor Olympic-sized pool) is the pride of New York. She represents a city of immense diversity, culture, and heritage. It seemed fitting that on one of the biggest news programs in America, in the biggest city in the nation, she was asked the question: “Have you stopped to think about how your life has changed?”
“My life is definitely changed a lot,” Neal said, glancing off-camera momentarily. It was a quick glance, perhaps noticing the cameras surrounding her, the reporters focused on her, or the crowd just outside the Today Show studios, their faces peering in the windows, watching her. Then the glance was gone, and she continued:
“With all of the media, the interviews, getting to meet interesting and new people. It’s changed for the better. I’m so blessed to have this.”
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.