It’s not very common to make history at just 17 years old, but for Brooklyn-native Lia Neal, the exception is reality. But you would be surprised that while the world is wondering what the Olympic bronze medalist who came came in 3rd with her team at the 4×100 relays, will do in the 2016 races, she is focused on getting tickets to her favorite techno concert and what she’ll major in college…like a normal 17 year old!
We caught up with Lia just after she returned from the London games and the young champion couldn’t be more excited to gush about her big win and the rapper she listens to before she hits the pool.
EBONY: What’s it been like since you returned to the States?
LIA NEAL: I came back on Monday at 11PM, wait…what day is it now? [Laughs] Tuesday I didn’t leave my house at all.
EBONY: Did you sleep all day?
LN: I tried! I woke up at like 6:30AM, a little earlier than I would have liked. It was just a lazy day. Yesterday, I went to the pool and swam at practice. Everyone was real excited to see me!
EBONY: Are you heading straight back to practicing?
LN: Oh no! I’m taking two weeks off.
EBONY: It has to be such a surreal feeling to make history at 17 years old. Has that hit you yet?
LN: Uh… no. I didn’t even know I was going to be the first African-American woman to swim at finals until I just saw a random tweet about it.
EBONY: Twitter is our news outlet, isn’t it?
LN: Yeah. It’s crazy!
EBONY: You have so many young girls looking up to you. How does that make you feel?
LN: It’s weird to hear about how many people look up to me. These two girls asked for pictures with me and later, I saw that they put them on Instagram [with the caption] “Oh my God, you’re like my role model!”
EBONY: You have a lot of fans. You and Gabby Douglas are such a big deal and I hope you understand how much of an impact you’re making on young women all over. Can you describe the moment when you found out you won the bronze medal?
LN: Well I was swimming the third leg of the relay that night, so I was watching the fourth leg, and it was pretty close. We pretty much saw that we were going to come in third, but when we did, it didn’t really hit me that I was getting an Olympic medal. It was weird.
EBONY: Did winning cross your mind while racing or is it just the love of swimming that you’re focused on?
LN: I think I was just so ready to race by that time. With those two weeks of training with the Olympic team leading up to the race, it just really motivated and I just really wanted to race. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like racing so badly before.
EBONY: How do you train? What is your everyday regimen?
LN: I swim 9 times a week and I do doubles in the mornings and in the evenings twice a week.
EBONY: Have you been thinking about Olympics 2016?
LN: Yeah, because I was done my races early. So there was still the rest of the competition to watch and I was cheering them on, watching them swim. Watching them win all of those medals and break all of these Olympic World records and stuff like that, just made me really motivated. I definitely want to make the 2016 Olympics and individual events in addition to the relay and I hope to even get a silver or gold [medal].
EBONY: What is going through your head those few seconds before the sound off beep?
LN: I don’t really think about anything. I still get really paranoid about my cap. I’m still pulling it down!
EBONY: I can’t believe you were worrying about your hair!
LN: Well if you move, you get disqualified. But I am really paranoid about my cap!
EBONY: You wouldn’t want anyone to say that Lia Neal was fixing her hair when she got disqualified! How does it feel to rep Brooklyn on a global stage?
LN: I’ve been getting a lot of support from New Yorkers but most importantly the Brooklynites.
EBONY: So what do you do as a normal 17 year old in your spare time?
LN: I just like to go to concerts.
EBONY: Who do you want to go see?
LN: There’s Electric Zoo, a bunch of, like, techno bands…
EBONY: Who’s your favorite music artist or band?
LN: That’s hard. I don’t know!
EBONY: What kind of other music do you like?
LN: Lil’ Wayne. I listened to him before I race.
EBONY: What about any celeb crushes?
LN: One Direction!
EBONY: You’ve done a lot at 17. Do you ever think about any other dreams outside of swimming?
LN: I don’t know. I don’t even know what college I’m going to! I don’t know what I want to major in.
EBONY: Well, what would you tell young boys and girls who want to follow in your footsteps?
LN: Well, if anyone wants to start taking lessons or join a swim team or just find a pool to swim for fun, they can visit swimtoday.org and that ties into with Swim Brooklyn, which is an extension of Make a Splash.
EBONY: Did it ever cross your mind about being a rarity in being an African American woman on the Olympic swim team?
LN: I didn’t really start thinking about that until people started saying things about it.
EBONY: That’s kind of how it works, especially for your generation. You probably don’t even think about that you’re just like, but in the bigger scheme of things, it’s a big deal. I think it’s a good thing that it doesn’t cross your mind so much because you probably don’t feel pressure. But you’re going to go so far and do bigger and better things and make the world proud. We’re so happy for you.
LN: Thank you so much!