By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Lia Neal became the first African-American woman to medal at two Olympics, following up her 2012 debut with another podium place in Rio in 2016. The Stanford leader has had an incredible journey from New York to California, and to all the places here and abroad where she’s inspired young people and carved out a historical journey for herself along the way. She talks about that in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Are you in New York right now?
Lia: Yes, I’ve been in New York doing an internship for a great company. I work in advertising with corporations they deal with, and it is so exciting to see it on a day-to-day basis.
2. After the Olympics – your second in a row – helping lead Stanford to an NCAA Championship your senior year, you made Worlds. Did you enjoy it?
Lia: Worlds was a lot of fun. It’s always fun being able to represent the U.S. and be on teams with your friends, plus getting to see your friends from other countries again. That only happens every few years, and it’s among the best parts of my experience proudly representing the United States.
3. And you still swam well considering the incredibly busy past year and half?
Lia: I didn’t do as well as I had hoped to do. That’s hard sometimes to end on a fairly depressing note, when you don’t hit a goal or time, but it’s fine that it happened because I will learn from it, and it will make me better. I know that I put in the work. Things just didn’t unfold as I hoped. But I take every meet as a learning experience. I feel like at this point I just need to have fun and enjoy swimming because I’ve been doing it so long, and I am so fortunate.
4. That NCAA title, how big was that sigh of relief to check that box before you moved on?
Lia: Immediately following NCAAs, I felt like such a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t expect that feeling – I didn’t know I’d feel that way. And then I didn’t know there’d be such a difference between swimming as an amateur and then professionally.
5. Is that a good feeling?
Lia: Oh certainly, because part of this is you move on and forward in your life, and swimming and Stanford have been a huge part of my development. Once you put in the four years in college, you’ve done everything you can for the team. It really is a relief to be happy for the career you had after all the time and energy you put into it, collegiately speaking.
6. And you are on team TYR now. That must be nice.
Lia: To be a pro and start the next chapter of your life is another step forward, and I feel very thankful. Being sponsored by a swim company has always been something I dreamed of – and wondered if I’d ever be able to reach that level and do this. I’m very excited to be working with the TYR team. They are a very nice and supportive family.
7. Are the photo shoots fun?
Lia: We actually have my first photo shoot this week, so I will be a new experience. I’ve been trying to, while interning, go to the gym and not get too out of shape. (Laughs).
8. You are closing in on your Stanford degree as well. How much does that mean?
Lia: I have two quarters and I will finish. When I’m done, I’m sure I’ll be able to articulate better what it means to me, because I still even now (laughs) feel like an undergrad. The only difference is I have completed my four years of eligibility, so I won’t be swimming at dual meets or at conference, but I’ll still be swimming with the team.
9. You all were loaded this year, but what was the experience of winning NCAAs having been there from the start of coach Greg Meehan’s tenure?
Lia: It went far beyond my expectations. NCAAs this year, going into it with our lineup, we were heavily favored and after the first day and half – even though you aren’t supposed to look ahead and I mean that in a sincere and honest way – we were aware that we were in a strong position to win. We stayed focused and made sure we finished wrong.
10. Just the joy on your faces – was it as fun as it looked?
Lia: It was a lot of fun to win. Stanford hadn’t won in 19 years, and on top of that, I hadn’t won an NCAA title, so I never knew what it felt like to win. It felt really good. Every hard practice and every struggle... every time that you counted yourself out or doubted yourself in practice – and everyone feels like that – leads to that moment where all that hard work pays off.
11. As great as it is to have the lineup you had – Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, but also Ella Eastin and so many others – there was more work than ever to be done, wasn’t there, to lead to success?
Lia: Everyone pushed each other throughout the season and throughout the year. That makes it all the more emotional and all the more meaningful, to finally win, because we know what it took to get to that place. To finally get that trophy was so special.
12. And for a program so storied to go so long without a title, that must’ve been rewarding in a meaningful way as well?
Lia: It was definitely a long time coming for the program, and for me as well. I was so lucky to be part of the NCAA-winning team, especially my last year at Stanford.
13. When you get Simone back from a redshirt year to prep for Rio and Katie Ledecky joins the team, from Day 1 it must’ve felt like something amazing could happen, right?
Lia: It definitely felt like the team was completely having everyone who was training together was also competing together. It was complete in all aspects. Katie had taken a gap-year, too, so she would have been there a year before. Simone came back after her redshirt year, so that’s also why we had a pretty outstanding lineup and Stanford was viewed as a favorite.
14. Coach Meehan’s speech to the team about how much you meant to the program was so moving. Did it catch you off-guard?
Lia: It meant a lot to me to hear how much he felt that I meant to the team and how much I meant to the program and him and (Associated Head coach) Tracy (Slusser). It did catch me off-guard. I have heard it before from his wife, Tess, who told me that he was so excited since he recruited me to come to Stanford, that I understood his vision and wanted to be a part of it. But there are so many great swimmers he brought in, some you are only starting to hear about. And there will be more. But that was so kind of him, and it means a lot.
15. So while you were recruited everywhere, Stanford was undoubtedly the right choice for you, right?
Lia: Yes, because I also made the decision because Stanford is such a great school. In terms of swimming, they have a great legacy – the program had just hit a wall for a bit. There are so many great schools nationwide in swimming.
16. Having a new coaching staff when you started, did that give you concern?
Lia: I heard a lot of good things about Tracy and Greg. So making this decision was based on a lot of sound principles – I knew it wasn’t a whim. I knew the program was going to be big, and get back on track and continue that legacy that it had for the longest time.
17. Pretty cool to have that feeling that “this is the right place” come to fruition in every possible way?
Lia: I believed in Stanford, the program, the coaches, and they believed in me. I feel so fortunate. Stanford is such a special, unique place with incredible people.
18. Seeing Katie at Stanford – after having been teammates in 2012 and then of course again in Rio –were you as impressed with how she did what she did?
Lia: Katie has always been super mature. Even when she was 15 and I was 17, and we roomed together in 2012 (at Olympic training camp). I was in awe of how well she expressed herself and how mature she was. And everyone else was impressed with how mature she is. It was amazing to see people marvel at how mature a 15-year-old could be. Given that she never lost her grounding and never lost her way, she’s still down to earth even after achieving what no woman has ever achieved since she came onto the scene. So it was really cool to see her remain the same down-to-earth Katie I had met in 2012 while reaching an entirely new level making history in 2016 and 2017.
19. That image of you, Greg and Simone hugging Maya at the Olympics is so iconic in its emotion and goodness, what was it like?
Lia: That was obviously a remarkable moment to be there for her and witness it. I followed her last 20 meters of the 200 back and knew that she had in the bag because she was charging down the home stretch after Katinka had been in the lead for the whole race. Maya was starting to really catch up and pass her. So I knew for a good portion of the race left that she was going to win gold and pull this huge upset. But obviously to see her touch the wall, look at the board and see she came in first was very emotional. It was a very inspiring, sitting in the bleachers with the USA team, everyone was jumping! And Greg was hunched over bawling! Greg and I ran down to the warmup area to embrace Maya and Simone was there, too. Only after watching more of Maya’s interviews after her performance in Rio did I realize she had doubted herself quite a bit along the way. I never saw that in person, because she always remained so positive. That’s good because it makes her such a good leader. When I was a freshman, she was a co-captain, and she led by example, never complaining or anything. We didn’t swim in the same group because of events, but from I could tell she was really sound in her decision making. Once she committed to swimming past graduation and her collegiate career was over, she had 100 percent effort. She knew she was going to her consulting job after Rio. So she was ready to leave it all in the pool. I always saw her as a really strong and talented swimmer who could think things through and see her plan through to the end – to do what it takes to reach her goals.
20. I always marvel how classy you are. Simone rightfully gets attention for her history-making swims and great character, and yet you root her on and never bring up the history you made as the first to medal in two Olympics – how do you do that?
Lia: Thank you. I guess (pause) … you bringing that up just made me emotional ... I am so sorry, just a second, okay? … (pause) ... When you get to a certain level, it’s hard to really appreciate your own accomplishments just because you are surrounded by such exceptional people. Simone, Katie and Maya are all that and more as people, not just as swimmers. Simone deserves all the comments she has earned. She is incredible and such an inspiration. In turn, I really wasn’t as inclined to dwell on my own accomplishments or draw attention to myself because the goal – for all of us – is to always keep moving forward. You have to have that focus when you are so driven. But to hear that, I guess it is important to appreciate what you have done and the impact you might have had on others as you work toward and achieve your own goals.