“I once said at the age of nine that I wanted to make the 2012 Olympics and be the first African American and Chinese swimmer to win an Olympic Gold Medal…”. Meeting most of that goal, Lia Neal made that statement one of the first quotes a viewer sees when scrolling through her vibrant website. It’s also one of the first goals the young, ambitious swimmer made to herself before each meet and every time she dove into a pool of water. So I had to ask:
Q: What made you get into swimming and what made you set that goal so young? You didn’t have too much representation to follow as a Black-Chinese swimmer.
Lia: I started swimming because my friends in the first grade started taking lessons.
When I was younger, still within my first few years of swimming competitively, I said that I wanted to become the first African-American and Chinese swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. As far as I was concerned, I was the only mixed African-American and Chinese swimmer, at least that I knew of, so I felt that if anyone were to do that, it might as well be me. I love being mixed and being able to draw from both sides of my family, thus molding me into the person I am today.
Q. Was that hard? You were literally paving a new road.
Where did your encouragement come from?
Lia: It wasn’t hard because I was just focused on myself. I wasn’t doing it with the intention of making history or being a pioneer; all of that came with the territory of doing my best. My motivation came from wanting to swim faster.
Swimming faster is exactly what she strived to execute. Neal elaborates by explaining her goal to achieving the best times, breaking team records, state records, and national age group records. It eventually lead her to making the USA National Jr. Team and the National Team which was the Olympic Team in London 2012. She won a bronze medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay and became the first black woman to swim and win in an Olympic Final. While being a full time student at Stanford University, she also managed to be the captain for the school’s 2016-2017 swim team and lead them to win the NCAA Swimming Championship. From her plight accomplishing one triumph to the next, she went on to attend and win silver in the same relay at the 2016 Rio Games. This made Lia Neal the first, Black-Chinese two-time Olympic medalist and the first black woman to compete at two Olympics.
Q. Bring me back to the moment when you realized you achieved a first that was never accomplished before. How did it feel?
Lia: It’s not like you win a medal and immediately think about your place in history. All of that kind of comes with people telling you and asking you questions like these. It took a while to appreciate what I’d done, but when I did and reflected on it every once in a while, it’s reassuring to know that making it twice means that it’s not solely luck or coincidence; you actually have to be doing something right in order to recreate that moment of making the Olympic team.
Q. What does it feel like to be a role model, have a platform, and have others watching you? Is there pressure/ a feeling of responsibility?
Lia: I think it’s so cool that I was able to do what I do and focus on my craft and have others admire it. It didn’t require any more effort from me than to purely do my job when I was growing up swimming and sort of making a name for myself over the years, but it’s nice to have others appreciate, respect, and even become inspired by it.
According to the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics Database, as of December 2018, only 5% of student athletes countrywide are African-American females. This is compared to 11% being African-American males, 30% being white females, and 34% being white males. When looking at how powerful Neal’s representation is as a Black-Chinese swimmer, according to the same database when looking at the demographic by race and identity, 2.1% of student athletes are Asian and 3.9% are two or more races.
Lia: As I’ve progressed more into the sport as a professional athlete though, I do feel a responsibility to give back because I do have a unique platform in just being who I am, looking the way I do, and having accomplished what I’ve accomplished; so I want to be able to give back and help those who aren’t as exposed to the sport and help them realize their untapped potential and serve as that representation for them.
Q. What is your next big goal as an athlete and as an influencer?
Lia: I loved my time doing sports diplomacy work in Hong Kong, Singapore, and China last year (2018). I’d love to do more in that realm, but also more domestically, so that I can “influence” urban areas including New York and eventually other cities and bring awareness of swimming to these communities.
It’s a goal the Olympian wasted no time plunging into. In April (2019), she voluntarily went and held clinics at her hometown in Brooklyn, New York with the Trident Swim Foundation, Jack and Jill, as well as the Swim Strong Foundation. The clinics gave her the opportunity to share her triumphs, her journey, have photo sessions with fans, and support foundations encouraging swim education and safety. As much as she aims to give back and share her knowledge, she still remains fixated on her personal growth.
Lia: As an athlete though, it’s to learn as much as possible about my own swimming so that I can truly do my best at my upcoming meets, reach my potential, and bear the fruits of my labor all whilst having fun.
What’s next for the young, tenacious swimmer? Her eyes are set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She trains with Team Elite Aquatics under Head Coach David Marsh in California. Marsh also launched the “Stand By Me Initiative” : a foundation supporters and fans can donate to. Donations support buying equipment and contribute to assisting the training of professional swimmers as they prepare and aim to take home more medals. Proceeds from the foundation also go towards efforts in funding water safety classes and initiatives to the outside community.
Q. What would you tell any young black, mixed-raced swimmers or athletes who may be reading this?
Lia: Don’t do it solely for the glorified moments, do it because you are passionate about the journey to get there as well. Also know that you’re not going to get the best times every time you swim; just take those times where you add time and learn from those mistakes and apply them going forth to become better.
From her humble beginnings swimming in the Asphalt Greene, Olympic-sized pool in New York City, to making history at two major Olympic swimming events, Lia Neal’s trail-blazing journey is inspiring to emulate.