By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Lia Neal stormed onto the scene at Olympic Trials and then got even better at the Olympics, swimming in a final at her first Games. The articulate New Yorker has signed with Stanford, and has a big four years ahead of her in the run-up to Rio, and it is starting now in Turkey at Short Course Worlds. She talks about London, what she hopes for moving forward, and more in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How do you describe 2012 to people?
Lia: The whole year has been like a whirlwind. So much has happened in a short amount of time. It was all fun and exciting, but now things are getting back to normal. I know where I am going to school next year, and I am excited about that. Having the Olympics over is in a way sad, just because I miss it and all my friends, but of course I am so glad to have experienced that. It’s amazing. I had so much fun over the summer.
2. How did you ratchet your performance up a notch or two when it mattered most?
Lia: I think the two weeks in Tennessee and Vichy leading up to London got me pumped up to finally swim my best; I have never felt so ready to race or be so anxious to race. My attitude was, “I came to swim my best.” I wasn’t even nervous;, I was just so excited. I was just ready to give that race my all. I was at the Olympics, and if you can’t give it your all there, when can you? To be on that relay final, I was pretty stoked. Even after the swim, I was ready to swim again! I was really lucky to swim on the finals relay; when (Olympic women’s Coach) Teri (McKeever) told me that I was on it after the coaches deliberated, I was jumping up and down.
3. Choosing Stanford – a good, challenging route, isn’t it?
Lia: Yes, definitely. Academics are of high importance to me. There is a certain point where swimming will end. You have to make sure you have a good education and you have the best resources available to you. I’m very lucky to have had Stanford show an interest in me. I am excited to see what I can do in the pool and in the classroom.
4. When did you decide you wanted to move all the way to the other side of the country?
Lia: Actually, probably since I was about 10 years old; for some reason I was always drawn to California, and more specifically to Stanford – that has always been my dream school, and it has been, for years and years, my goal to go there. I realized a day or two after verbally committing to Stanford, “Wow, I have achieved two of my biggest goals in the same year” – going to the Olympics, and being able to go to Stanford. When I set those goals as a 10 year old, they did not really seem achievable; it seemed so out there, almost surreal. I think it’s important to be able to set a goal, and go after it; hearing it from yourself makes it easier to realize what it’s going to take to get there.
5. Heading from New York to points beyond for so many meets, that has actually worked to your advantage, hasn’t it?
Lia: Definitely, we are traveling all the time for meets, whether domestically or traveling internationally, and that really helped me for London – even if I didn’t notice it at the time as we went from meet to meet, it made me ready for what I had to do this year. If you place it within that context, it’s probably something that will help me moving across the country as well for college.
6. You have gotten a lot of questions for your African American heritage, which is so rich and wonderful; I have also noticed that even though you have not gotten the attention for it, you seem to be very proud of your Chinese heritage as well, correct?
Lia: I definitely identify myself as both African American and Chinese. I do celebrate all the Chinese holidays, like Chinese New Year, the Chinese Moon Festival, and when I was younger I went to a Chinese pre-K. That’s how I learned to speak Cantonese, as well as speaking it with my mom. And I am on my fourth year of studying Mandarin. So yes, I am definitely involved with my Chinese history.
7. I tried that – what did you think of learning Mandarin?
Lia: I thought it would be… well,, not simple, but easier to learn Mandarin than any other language. I tried Spanish one year, but Cantonese and Mandarin use a lot of the same characters. Some words in Mandarin are only a little bit different. But as I learn more and more Mandarin, it really is pretty different – some words do not sound alike at all (to Cantonese). The whole grammar aspect, having to memorize thousands and thousands of characters, is challenging, but completely worth it to me.
8. You have really stepped into a role model platform for a lot of people – are you comfortable with that?
Lia: Actually, I am really flattered when any kid looks up to me, or freaks out (laughs) a little bit when they see me. I definitely don’t feel uncomfortable talking about being a role model at all. Listen, it helps kids to see someone who looks like them doing this, or anything they are doing or contemplating – and that person could be me, or anyone. That goes for white kids, Asians – whomever. I am 17, so a lot of these kids can identify with me. So if I can serve as a role model for them, and they feel they can relate to me, I will be 100 percent available to support that. Frankly, I am just flattered to have any kind of impact on kids wanting to work on a healthy lifestyle.
9. Did you think going into Olympic Trials you had a good chance to make the team?
Lia: Actually, I only believed I could make the team a few months out from Trials. It set off a switch in me at Charlotte in February. That was my first time actually standing on the top podium at a national competition like that, and the first time I felt like, “Yes, I really want to win this!” After that win, I convinced myself that I could do something in the sport, and that I really did belong up there with the great women I was racing against. I have also had great club coaches, and I would not be where I am without any of them.
10. But Trials didn’t start out that way, did it?
Lia: I had my 200 free first at Trials, and that didn’t go well. I let my nerves get the best of me. I felt like I had to redeem myself because I had put too much time and effort into my training to let one mishap define me. Also, the 100 free is my better event. I thought I could do something special. So it was nice to get the 200 out of the way. It helped me refocus and remind myself what I am trying to do. Going into the 100 free, all I wanted to do was make the Olympic team. So to come in sixth place, I was ecstatic with that.
11. Just from hanging out with everyone at Golden Goggles and interviewing them in the months since London, I am just stunned at how close this team was – were you?
Lia: So many of the people on the Olympic team who were on past Olympic or National Teams have all said that this is the closest and nicest group they have ever been with. I am just lucky to have my first National Team be with a group of people this awesome. We all became so close so quickly – within three weeks. It’s really cool because I have always heard all their names, and seen them swim at meets on TV or in person, and now I get to know them. It made them even more awesome as people in my eyes, and the more time I spent with them, I liked them even more.
12. Natalie, Michael, Rebecca, Dana, Ryan, Matt, Missy – what was it like to be their teammate?
Lia: It was so amazing to be on the same team as them. I have always, when I was just getting into the sport and started to understand the sport, looked up to a lot of those people. Natalie Coughlin is a name I have always heard – when you hear the term “best American swimmer,” that is who you think of on the women’s side of it. If you would have told me five years ago that I would be friends with her and be on the same team with her, I would not have believed you. I am so glad we became friends. She’s a great swimmer, but also a great leader, and more than that, one of the greatest people you could ever hope to meet.
13. You mentioned learning a lot from Rebecca Soni – what was she like?
Lia: Rebecca Soni is the nicest person you will ever meet. I had never met her before the Olympics, but I would always see her, and she was one of my favorite swimmers. Getting to know her, I liked her even more. I could not have asked for a better team, with such genuinely nice people.
14. How come the men’s and women’s teams were so close this time?
Lia: Two things, the coaches and the people. The men and women swimmers were just the best group of people you could put together for a team. The men were also very friendly and supportive. I got to know a lot of them. We all became really good friends. That was really cool. How many people can say they have had conversations with Michael Phelps and all of those great swimmers? Our coaches also managed us just perfectly, and we fit in well together as a result of that.
15. To be there for the end of Michael’s career and the birth of Missy’s legend – pretty good timing?
Lia: Yes, I (laughs) I planned it that way. Even recapping the Olympics gives me goose bumps; it was so amazing to be there and witness all that history taking place. I am just so grateful to have been there and to have made the team when I did. I am just so lucky. \
16. On another note, I was job hunting while we were at Golden Goggles, and I found New York to be one of the friendliest places I have ever been over the course of five days of walking around the city – how come they don’t get credit for that?
Lia: I think it really is a friendly place and I love living there. New York does have a stereotype of nose to the grindstone, keep to yourself, and being in a hurry. And the thing of being in a hurry is true (laughs) but if you have a smile to share, you’ll get one back. You can say hi to strangers and they will almost always greet you back. Getting directions from people is always easy, and I love that about our city. You can say a lot about New Yorkers, but we are definitely not ambivalent. You do see, more often than not, people helping each other. Sometimes, I will see people even helping others across the street.
17. What’s it like for you when you travel to meets – how do you explain what it’s like to be from New York?
Lia: I usually get asked a lot about how I feel about being a swimmer and coming out of New York because the perception is that it is not known for swimming, but let me tell you, swimming is really underrated here; there are a lot of swim programs in New York, and it’s becoming a much more well known sport.
18. What do you do to relax?
Lia: What I usually like to do is sleep. I also enjoy (laughs) eating. I like catching up on Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. I love being with my friends. We try to plan going out to breakfast together, because it gives us time to chat and eat. I also like to listen to music.
19. You mentioned the Olympic team fitting together – but it was a case of a lot of different personalities, and even cultures in some ways, wasn’t it?
Lia: Definitely, that was the case. There were so many great people with so many great personalities. For the most part, if you weren’t outgoing in the beginning, you became that way because people wanted you to feel comfortable. And everyone just became so comfortable around each other. We had a lot of people with great senses of humor. That helped us become close so fast, because people really cared about each other and were warm toward each other.
20. I was fortunate to wear the uniform when I was in the Air Force, but was never talented enough – my talent didn’t meet my dream! – to wear it in sports: What’s it mean to wear that amazing flag and letters U-S-A?
Lia: It’s just an overwhelming sense of pride that comes with wearing the Team USA uniform and the cap with your flag and your name on it. It sounds like something you’d see in a movie – the experience of walking out and how it makes you feel to represent the United States…it is just so amazing. I am so glad to have represented the United States in London, and again in Istanbul, Turkey, as part of teams with such incredible people.