LONDON–When 17-year-old African-American swimmer Lia Neal climbed out of the pool of the Aquatics Center at Olympic Park following the U.S. women’s bronze medal finish in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, she had an obvious look of disappointment on her face because she wanted want that gold medal. If only she had known that first lady Michelle Obama had made her way over to the Aquatics Center to see her and her teammates swim.
Told that she and her relay teammates had set a record time and about Obama’s attendance, Neal flashed a 100-kilowatt smile and said, “That was so amazing. I wish I could have seen her. I did not know she was here. Wow!”
Neal and her swim mates Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy and Allison Schmitt were amazing as they traversed the pool in an American record time of 3:34.24, which was just off the Olympic record pace set by Australia and second place Netherlands. Upon reflection, the young Neal sat back in wonderment with a big smile and realized where and how she started and how far she has come.
“Sure, there were some huge expectations for this team to win a medal,” Neal told me right after her historic swim, “but I was not that nervous once I got to the Aquatics Center. I did not know what to expect because this was my first Olympic Games, but I knew that I generally swim better in finals, so I was ready.
“This bronze medal is special, but we have been performing well throughout the rounds as a team. We knew we had a chance to get that gold medal, so from that standpoint, it is a little disappointing.”
There is absolutely nothing that Neal should be disappointed about. She had, after all, made history, becoming only the second African-American woman to make a USA Olympic swim team.
“I realize that there have not been many people in the African-American community who have been at this level in swimming,” said Neal. “I’ve heard so many stories from different people, even in my own family, about urban kids having bad experiences being in the water and swimming that I can really relate.
“The fact of the matter is, my mother got me started in swimming at age 6 just so I could learn water safety. She and I never even dreamed I would be an Olympian. Up until last year, I never even thought I had a shot at making the USA team.”
Neal said she is “flattered that people might look at [her] as a role model.” She also noted that she is not even in college yet and has a lot to learn herself. However, she said that when she gets home, if people think she has something to offer concerning swimming safety and exposing African-American youth to the water, she would gladly do it.
Neal made the Olympic swim team by finishing fourth in the 100-meter freestyle finals at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb. Her fourth place finish earned her a spot on the 4×100 relay team. It did not take long before people started asking, “Who is that girl?” and quickly went to the record books to see if any other African-American female had made a U.S. Olympic team.
As soon as she got out of the water, she was asked if she knew about her precursor, Maritza Correia, who won a silver medal in the 4×100 freestyle relay in 2004. Neal acknowledged that she never thought she’d be the second Black female swimmer to make an Olympic team.
Now after her first Olympic experience, Neal told me, “I’m looking forward to the next chapter. I’m done at these Olympics, but in four years, I hope to drop my times even further and qualify for an individual event. Right now, I’m just going to cheer for my other teammates.”