When meeting the press last week, Carol Tweedy, executive director of Asphalt Green, couldn’t have been more pleased. Not only did the Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics (AGUA) swim team have its first Olympian, Lia Neal of Brooklyn, but her place on the Olympic team heading to London is helping shatter negative stereotypes about people of color and swimming.
“Unfortunately, the issue of skills of African-American swimmers has been tinged with racism in this country,” said Tweedy, referring to ignorant comments that have been made about Black people lacking buoyancy or the physical attributes to excel at the sport. “Lia is one of the people who can fight this untrue legacy and show other young people…this is something they can aspire to do.”
Neal, a quiet 17-year-old who will be a member of the 4×100 freestyle relay team, immediately resumed practice after returning to New York from the Olympic trials. Swimming since the age of 6 and training at Asphalt Green since age 8, Neal said she always dreamed about going to the Olympics but only realized the dream could become a reality within the past few months.
“Lia was somebody who, around the country at a young age, everybody knew about. There were signs she could be outstanding and amazing,” said Rachael Stratton-Mills, head coach of AGUA. “Watching her progress over the past two years, I always knew that long-term she could be an immense success. Having it come together for this year’s Olympic trials is a matter of her maturing and realizing the gravity of the situation and being able to handle that.”
On a daily basis, Neal arrives at Asphalt Green for 5:30 a.m. practice. At least twice a week, she returns after school for another session. “My parents have helped me so much to get to where I am,” Neal said. “Also, all the coaches I’ve had leading up to this day. From the coaches who taught me technique to coaches who helped me work on my endurance, coaches who helped me work on my sprinting–it’s been a combination of everything to help me get to where I am.”
This week, Neal and Stratton-Mills are attending a training camp for the U.S. Olympic swimming team in Tennessee. Other swimmers of color on the U.S. team are Cullen Jones from the Bronx and Californian Anthony Ervin.