Do you remember the biggest thing you did when you were thirteen? Maybe you held a bake sale and raised money for a charity. Perhaps you organized a car wash or shoveled sidewalks to make some extra cash.
Four years ago, then-thirteen year old Lia Neal was swimming in the 100 and the 50-meter freestyle at the 2008 Olympic Trials. She is a gold medalist in the 100 freestyle at the World Junior Championships, but at the Trials that day she got blown away, finishing 78th in the 100-meter freestyle.
Fast forward four years and Neal can’t stop crying. Her tears of joy flowed after she qualified to compete in the 400-meter freestyle relay in London for the U.S. Olympic swim team by placing fourth (54.33 secs.) in the 100-meter freestyle finals. It was an eighth place finish (54.60 secs.) the day before in the preliminaries that allowed her to just slide into the finals, which shows how she never gave up despite the odds being against her.
But, the odds were against her long before the trials earlier this month. Lia grew up in Brooklyn, New York where there aren’t any swim teams near her, but after taking lessons at age six, another parent suggested she try out for a team. She did. And she has been training at Asphalt Green United Aquatics on Manhattan’s Upper East Side ever since.
Neal, who’s father is Black and mother is Chinese, will join Cullen Jones and Anthony Ervin, both from the men’s team, to form the largest group of Black swimmers to ever represent the United States at the Olympic games. Prior to this year, this swim team never had more than one Black member and before 2000 when Ervin captured a Bronze, there were none. Lia is, in fact, only the second Black woman to ever make the team after Maritza Correia, won a silver in 2004 in the 400-meter freestyle relay – the same event Neal has qualified for. She told reporters that she had gotten an email from Correia who told her to enjoy every moment and to soak it in.
As a member of the U.S. swim team, Neal has suddenly become a role model to Black kids who rarely get to see Olympic swimmers that look like them. Even though she is still a kid herself, Neal seems to have embraced that role telling interviewers, “I just hope this inspires more people to join the sport.”
Perhaps her success will inspire more kids of color to get in the pool and go for Olympic gold, but until then, they’ll all be rooting for Neal.