Swimming has been both a source of humor and trepidation within Black communities. While the high drowning rates of Black youth are reaching epidemic proportions, according to Talia Mark of USA Swimming, the other-side of the spectrum finds punchlines associated with the disbelief that Black folk, do in fact swim. This disbelief was brilliantly illustrated in the second season premiere of the web series Black Folk Don’t. Yet between the tragedy and the guffaws, are two swimmers—one, an American record holder in the 50 Meter Freestyle and the other a 17-year-old teenager from Brooklyn—who not only swim, but swim fast enough to represent the United States in the upcoming London Olympics.
For Cullen Jones, earning a berth on the 2012 United State Olympic Team, is déjà vu; Jones won a Gold Medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing for his role on the 4×100 Freestyle relay that also included Michael Phelps. 2012 represents a different scenario for Jones as his first place finish in the 50m Freestyle and second place finish in the 100m Freestyle at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska offer his first chances to win a medal in an individual event at the Olympics. Anthony Ervin, who was the first American swimmer of African descent (he is part Jewish, Native American and Black) to win a Gold Medal in Swimming in 2000, also made the Olympic team finishing second in the 50m Freestyle.
Jones’ backstory is pretty well known; as a child, he almost drowned, only to later learn how to swim and take up competitive swimming. After a successful collegiate career at North Carolina State University, the Bronx native became one of the leading Freestyle sprinters in the world, setting the American World Record in the 50m sprint on two separate occasions. Chad Onken, who coached Jones at North Carolina State University and is currently head coach of the YMCA of the Triangle (NC) swim team says, “Cullen is a phenomenal talent and an amazing sprinter. His feel for the water can not be coached. He is a great athlete, both in and out of the water, who hates to lose more than he likes to win. His presence on the team provides the US with a competitor in the pool and a great friend and teammate out of the pool.”
Blessed with the kind of good looks and wholesome demeanor that magazine editors and ad agencies love, Jones has been dutiful in translating his relative fame and visibility into efforts to encourage safe swimming among Black and Latino/a youth, as the national spokesperson for the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make A Splash” initiative. The foundation is an initiative of USA Swimming. According to the foundation’s research, 70% of Black children do not know how to swim and the drowning rates among that same population is three times that of their White peers.
At the age of 17, the weighty responsibilities of being a role model are probably the last thing on Lia Neal’s mind. Four years ago, Neal qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials only weeks before her thirteenth birthday. She was overshadowed—and rightfully so—by her fellow 2012 Olympian Missy Franklin, who also competed at the 2008 Trial as a 13-Year-old and is currently the American record holder in both the 100m and 200m Backstroke. With her fourth-place finish in the 100m Freestyle at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Neal earned a spot on the 4x100m Freestyle Relay in London, becoming only the second Black American female swimmer to earn a spot. Maritza Correia earned a Silver medal as art of the 4x100m Freestyle Relay at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Neal, is the youngest of four children born to Hong-Kong born Siu Neal and New York native Rome Neal, also a board member of the famed Nuyorican Poets Café in New York. Neal began swimming when she was 6-years-old and started competing with the Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics club on the Upper Eastside of New York City shortly thereafter. By the time she turned 10-years-old Neal was setting national age-group records in the 50m and 100m Freestyle events. To put Neal’s development into some perspective, after her trip to London this summer as an Olympian, she’ll return to Covent of the Sacred Heart in the fall to complete her senior year of high school.
Lia Neal’s emergence comes at a time swimming has been bandied about as an ideal activity to help Blacks, particularly Black women, address various health concerns, such as hypertension and obesity. One of the issues that has historically kept Black women and girls out of the pool, is that of haircare; chemical relaxers and chlorine are seemingly natural enemies. To help USA Swimming, the national governing body of the sport, better understand “Hair Matters,” Talia Mark, who serves as the organization’s Manager of Multicultural Marketing, recently organized a group viewing of Chris Rock’s Good Hair to help sensitive some of her colleagues to the issue.
Whatever her success at the London OLYMPICS, Neal’s most lasting legacy might be to show young Black girls like herself, that not only can they swim, but they can also aspire to compete at the highest levels, while developing a skill that transferable to so many aspects of their lives including positive self-image, self-confidence and discipline, and the ability to save lives.
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