by Jim Mancari
What did you do the summer before your senior year in high school?
Maybe you had a part-time job, were busy filling out college applications or even lounged each day on the beach.
Fort Greene native Lia Neal had different plans this summer, mainly swimming for her country in London at the Olympics.
Neal was part of the women’s 4×100 meter freestyle relay that won a bronze medal July 28 at the London Aquatics Centre. The 17-year-old swam the third leg of the race in what was her first-ever Olympics.
Neal and her family are parishioners at St. Saviour parish, Park Slope. She was baptized at Sacred Heart Church on Adelphi St., which is now part of Mary of Nazareth parish, Fort Greene. She attends Convent of the Sacred Heart H.S. in Manhattan.
Neal’s swimming career began at age six when she started taking lessons while a student at Transfiguration, a private Catholic school in Chinatown. At age eight, she joined the Asphalt Green fitness center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she began to swim competitively.
She earned a spot on her high school team at Sacred Heart. Through the whole Olympic process, she said her teachers and classmates have been extremely supportive. She’s missed significant time travelling to swim meets across the country, but she’s grateful that everyone’s helped her make up the schoolwork.
To make the cut for the Olympic trials, swimmers must post the qualifying time at any meet. Neal made the cut and headed to Omaha, Neb., in late June with the goal of making the team in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay.
The top six finishers in the freestyle trials advanced to London. Neal finished in fourth place with a personal best time of 54.33 seconds. She immediately started shedding tears of joy when she saw she had qualified for the Olympics.
“I was so happy because I really wanted to make the team in the 100 free, but what I always envisioned myself placing in was sixth or just making the team,” Neal said. “Seeing that I came in fourth just exceeded everything that I thought I would do. I was really proud of that and kind of shocked too.”
So Neal packed her bags and journeyed with her teammates and family members across the Atlantic Ocean to the site of the Games of the XXX Olympiad. She was unable to take part in the opening ceremonies on July 27, since the race was the next day and she would have been on her feet for over five hours.
With her selection, Neal – who is half African-American and half Chinese-American – became just the second woman of African-American descent to swim for the U.S. Olympic team. The only other is Maritza Correia, a silver medalist in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay in 2004 in Athens.
The top two freestyle finishers at the trials are guaranteed a spot to swim in the Olympic finals. However, the other two spots for the relay are decided in the preliminary race, held the morning of the finals.
While preparing to compete, Neal did not let the pressure of the Olympics get to her.
“It’s no different except for the media attention that it gets because it happens every four years,” she said.
In the preliminaries, Neal broke her previous personal best that she set at the trials by posting a time of 54.15 seconds. The team chose her as the third leg for the freestyle relay finals, joining Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy and Allison Schmitt. The team had high expectations heading into the race.
“I think everyone wanted us to get on the podium and pretty much do the best we can and give it our all to finish as high as we could,” Neal said.
Franklin and Hardy put the Unites States in medal contention with their performances. As Hardy touched the wall, Neal dove into the pool. She said she couldn’t even remember what she was thinking about during the race.
“I knew I wasn’t nervous,” Neal said. “I was definitely excited for the prelims relay and the finals relay. Once you’re at the Olympics, you realize that it’s just another swim meet, and you know not to let your nerves get the best of you. You just get so excited to race.”
Neal once again set a new personal best, clocking in at 53.65 seconds in the finals. The relay team set a new American record at 3:34:24, which earned them the bronze medal. Australia took home the gold by setting a new Olympic record in the event at 3:33:15, while the Netherlands won silver with a time of 33:33:79.
“It was a really close race,” Neal said. “It could have been anyone’s race.”
Every Olympian dreams of winning gold, but Neal has now established a major stepping stone of her swimming career at just age 17. She competed in one event and medalled in that event – a 100% success rate.
“I definitely don’t feel like I’m done,” Neal said. “If anything, it just motivates me more for the meets to come and eventually Rio (de Janeiro) in 2016.”
Though she has plenty more accomplishments on the horizon, Neal will spend the rest of her summer vacation from school reveling in her bronze medal success.
Contact Jim Mancari via e-mail at email@example.com.
St. Augustine D.H.S. Alumni Reunion
St. Augustine D.H.S. Alumni Association will conduct its alumni reunion and Hall of Fame induction dinner on Saturday, Sept. 29, at Bishop Loughlin M.H.S., Fort Greene. The day will include the induction ceremony, a cocktail reception, Mass and dinner. The Class of 1962 will celebrate its 50th anniversary, while graduates from 1967, 1957, 1952, 1947, 1942 and the 1930s will also be honored.
The Hall of Fame inductees include: James P. Flaherty, ’65 (Basketball), Walter Glowacz, ’67 (Basketball), H. Vincent Kelly, ’51 (Track and Field), and Father Daniel Murphy, ’62 (Basketball)
For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Charlie O’Donnell at 718-857-2700 ext. 2255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.