By Mike Watkins//Correspondent | Saturday, April 9, 2016
Lia Neal made a lot of progress between her freshman and sophomore years of college in and out of the pool – and it shows.
Last summer at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, she finished among the top six in the100 freestyle to qualify for two international teams this summer.
And then three weeks ago at NCAA Championships, the Stanford sprinter won the silver in the 100 freestyle and helped complete a 1-2-3 sweep by African-American swimmers.While much was made about this accomplishment in the weeks that followed, for Neal, who hails from New York and swam among a very diverse group of athletes at Asphalt Green Aquatics Club, this feat was largely lost on her.
It’s a sign in her view that while still mostly a white sport, the complexion of swimming is changing before her very eyes.
“I don’t mean to downplay what we accomplished; I’m very proud that three women of color won medals in the 100 free,” she said. “But coming from a very diverse group, it was something I’m used to.
“It wasn’t until after the meet was over and people started talking about what we did that I realized the significance of it. Maybe it was easier for a third party to see. To me, and I think also to Simone (Manuel) and Natalie (Hinds), we were more focused on the race and less on who was swimming.”
Such is the case for Neal, who burst onto the USA Swimming scene almost three years ago when she made the 2012 Olympic team and went on to win a bronze medal as a member of the 400 freestyle relay team.
And while the team didn’t win gold – coming up short against strong teams from the Netherlands and Australia – it did set an American record with Neal, an Olympic rookie, being chosen to swim a leg in the final.
Just as she’s matured since her freshman year – when she struggled a bit with the transition from high school to college in the classroom and in the pool – Neal is a much different swimmer and competitor than the high school phenom in 2012.
For her, it’s all part of the process of growing up both as a person and an athlete – and having gone through it, has reminded her how important swimming is to her and how much she wants it to be a big part of her future.
“I have a lot more figured out and knowing what to expect and how to be prepared has definitely made a difference,” Neal said. “Because I’m feeling so much more comfortable, I’ve been training harder this year than last and it’s really made a difference in my results.”
Having Manuel as a training partner hasn’t hurt, either. Neal said lining up next to one of the best freestyle swimmers in the world each day in practice has pushed her to want and expect more from herself.
She’s also helped Neal rediscover some of the joy she’s always had for swimming.
“I feel really fortunate to have Simone as a teammate and training partner; she really helps bring out the best in me,” Neal said. “Plus, we have a lot of fun together, which makes for exciting practices that are never dull. We keep each other entertained.
“When you constantly have someone pushing you in practice, it really makes you a better swimmer and competitor. I needed that. Having her here has helped me redefine and set new standards for myself.”
Since the Olympics, Neal has been absent from U.S. international teams outside of the 2013 Short Course World Championship squad.
She attributes it to adjusting to her own expectations after reaching such lofty heights – that and she went through a period where she admits to having slacked off some in her training.
Arriving at Stanford for the 2013-14 season forced her back into harder training, and she saw the fruits of her labor (literally) last year at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships when she earned a spot on this summer’s World University Games and FINA World Championship teams. Just as she did in London, she’ll swim on the United States’ 400 freestyle relay.
“I really attribute my training at Stanford to helping me get back on the National Team as well as this summer’s teams,” Neal said. “I am so excited to be back on U.S. teams. I had such a great experience at the Olympics.
“It’s really a privilege, and one I take very seriously. Not being on the past few teams was hard, but I don’t attribute it to feeling any pressure or giving in to expectations – none other than my own.”
Following her busy summer – which will take her first to Italy for training camp, then South Korea for WUGs, followed by training camp in Croatia before Worlds in Russia – Neal said she is looking ahead already to next summer’s Olympic Trials back in Omaha for a third time.
And now that’s she’s a little older and has a more mature perspective about what it means to be a U.S. Olympian, she said she wants to make more Olympic memories in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“It will be a lot of fun this summer to get in some international racing; that’s what I’ve missed most the last couple of years,” she said. “I know that each race will prepare me more for next year.”
“In London, I didn’t get to go to the Opening Ceremonies because I had the 400 free relay the next morning, but I remember listening to it and seeing the fireworks from the athlete’s village and just taking it all in. I’m anxious to experience that again.”
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