Brooklyn is the home of many famous athletes and entertainers. From Michael Jordan to Mike Tyson and Spike Lee to JAY Z, the New York City borough has birthed some of the most influential and iconic figures of the modern era. Now, Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, can add one more name to the town’s illustrious list– Lia Neal. The 17-year-old swimmer is poised to carry the torch and represent BK to the fullest at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
On Saturday night, Neal became the pride of Brooklyn when she finished fourth in the 100-meter freestyle finals to earn a spot on the women’s 400 freestyle relay team that will compete in London. In a spectacular finish, her fourth-place was timed in at 54.33, behind 25-year-old Jessica Hardy, 17-year-old Colorado phenom Missy Franklin, and Allison Schmitt, 22, and just ahead of the American-record holder, Amanda Weir, and 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin. Neal’s time edged Weir’s by .08 of a second to clinch her Olympic berth in Omaha.
The youngest of four, Neal was raised in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn by her parents, Jerome and Sui Neal, who are of African-American and Chinese-American descent, respectively. The trilingual Olympian –she’s fluent in English, Cantonese and has studied Mandarin for the past six years– started taking swim lessons at age six and began training at Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at age eight. In 2008, she and Franklin were the youngest swimmers at the Olympic trials. Neal, who has three older brothers, qualified a month before turning 13 by breaking an 11-12 age-group record in the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 58.17. However, while competing at the trials, she finished 78th in the 100-freestyle and 28th in the 50-meter freestyle, failing to make the team. Now, after four long years of hard work, discipline and dedication, the rising senior at Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Manhattan, dreams of competing at the highest-stage has finally come to fruition.
“I feel Lia is blessed,” admits Mrs. Neal, who’s retired. “I was hoping she would have gotten to the top four. She seemed kind of nervous, but she wanted it bad. She wanted to do well and earn her spot. It came true. I just thank God for it.”
The United States swim team has never had more than a single team member of African-American descent– now they have three. Neal, who became just the second African-American woman to make an American Olympic swim team, will join her male counterparts, Cullen Jones and Anthony Ervin (who returned to the pool after he shared gold in 2000 and retired in ’03), as the only swimmers of African-American roots on the team. The first black woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team was Maritza Correia, a silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Games.
“It’s a strong sense of pride to know that she represents both her heritages of African-American and Chinese descent,” explains Mr. Neal, a thespian, director and artist serving on the Board of Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan. “It was purely exhilarating and a wonderful, wonderful feeling of joy and achievement for her. I felt very happy for her to make this triumph in her life.”
At only 17, Neal –a gold medalist in the 100 freestyle at the World Junior Championship– now sets her sights on accomplishing her ultimate goal at the London Games. Brooklyn should be proud, but there’s no one more proud than her parents. On Team USA’s chances at winning gold, Mr. Neal has nothing but high hopes for his daughter. “I think their [chances] great,” he affirms. “Lia’s on a fantastic young team, that’s going to really bring home the gold.”