By Leland Stein III
LONDON - When 17-year-old African American swimmer Lia Neal climbed out of the pool in the Aquatics Centre at Olympic Park following the United States women’s bronze medal finish in the 4x100m freestyle relay, she had the obvious look of disappointment on her face, because all 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. When I told her she flashed a 100kilowatt smile saying, “That was so amazing. I wish I could have seen her. I did not know she was here. Wow!” Amazing was Neal and her swim mates Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy and Allison Schmitt 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 will sit back in wonderment, with a big smile and realize 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 Aquatic 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.
“Sure this bronze medal is special, but we have been performing well throughout the rounds as a team. We knew we have a chance to get that gold medal, so from that stand point 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 that have been at this level in swimming,” New Yorker Neal told me. “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 six 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 that 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 that she has a lot to learn herself. However, she said when she gets home and people think she has something to offer as far as 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 4x100 relay team. It did not take long before people started saying who is that girl and quickly went to the record books to see if any other African-American female had made an US Olympic team. As soon as she got out the water she was asked if she knew about her precursor Maritza Correia, who won a silver medalist in the 4x100 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 year 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.”
Leland Stein can be heard on WGPR Radio (107.5) every Sunday from 11 p.m. to midnight. He can be reached at email@example.com.