Lia Neal is 17. Like, really 17.
This is a fact that most Americans have come to learn about her over the past two weeks. Neal is one of the several young female stars who made their presence abundantly known in London for the American Olympic women’s swim team; including fellow 17-year-old Missy Franklin and 15-year old sensation Katie Ledecky. Neal and Franklin joined Jessica Hardy and Allison Schmitt to win a bronze medal in the 4X100 free relay, and helped the women of Team USA to the best medal record in the world, winning more medals than the American men for the first time in the history of the games.
But back in her hometown of New York City, Lia Neal doesn’t look like she’s concerned about any of that. Donning denim jeans, her Team USA jacket, and, of course, that Bronze medal around her neck, the first-time Olympian just appears to be terribly 17.
She’s fidgety, nervous and still quite uncomfortable with all the press. She’s excited to have won her first Olympic medal but is mostly looking forward to returning to her senior year of high school in a few weeks. She won’t wear her medal as a part of her back-to-school outfit–she’s really doesn’t want to draw that type of attention to herself.
She’s also looking forward to senior prom, which is a lot of pressure for an Olympian who attends an all-girls school. She’ll be responsible for asking her own date. Her top picks: Ezra Keonig (Vampire Weekend), Harry Styles (One Direction) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (not necessarily in that order). And with her newfound national fame, it’s likely she can just tweet them and they’d agree.
Her classmates have been very supportive since she qualified for the 2012 Olympic team, and life has been a bit of a whirlwind since she looked up at that board and found out she was heading to London.
“They’re so supportive, they’re constantly tweeting at me or writing on my wall. Like, after making the Olympic team at trials, my Facebook just blew up, everything blew up. It’s quite overwhelming,” says Neal. She lets out another giggle.
By saying she “blew up”, Lia is speaking of her new fans. She has received twitter encouragement from Alicia Keys, Spike Lee and Mike Tyson, just to name a few. What did she write back to Tyson?
“@miketyson thank you so so much, you’re legendary.”
“That was pretty awesome,” she says. Giggle.
But as only the second African-American woman to compete in swimming on the American Olympic swim team, Neal is on her way to becoming a legend herself. Born to an African-American father and Chinese mother, the Brooklyn native began her swimming career at the age of 6.
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But Lia has never felt the sting of racism in her training. “People always ask me how it feels to be a minority in the sport. I can’t really answer that because I’ve always been surrounded by so many ethnicities. I think that’s just a stereotype,” says Neal. “I just serve as an example of someone who doesn’t fit in to that stereotype.”
At age 8, Lia began to train competitively at New York’s City’s Asphalt Green Athletic Complex. The not-for-profit organization located on the city’s Upper East Side is renowned for its athletic programs and community outreach. By the age of 15, Lia was becoming a rising star in the sport, and with the London games approaching, making the Olympic team became a real possibility.
Qualifying for the 2012 games, she joined another African-American and second time Olympian, Cullen Jones, as a history maker. Jones is the third African-American to ever make the Olympic team in swimming.
“He’s so friendly, he’s so nice,” Neal says of Jones. “He’s always there to help me. Before my swim at trials, he gave me some inspiration. He said, “all you have to do is go out fast and hold on to it because you can bring it home. I’ve seen you do it before. What these other girls have in your heat in experience, you have in talent. “
A typical day in Neal’s 17-year-old life is not so typical at all. Every morning before school Lia spends two hours in the pool, then an additional four hours after school, before heading home to tackle homework and start all over again. “There are times when I definitely don’t want to go to practice, especially when it’s 5:30 in the morning,” she says. “It’s hard to remind myself when I’m trying to get myself out of bed that this is all going to be worth it one day.”
Winning a medal in London has certainly made it worth it. Lia has become a national darling and a hometown hero. She’s still trying to process her moment with her teammates on the Olympic podium.
“It didn’t really sink in, even when I was standing on the podium with the medal on my neck. I remember thinking, shouldn’t I be reacting differently? Like, at trials, like when I touched the wall and realized I made the Olympic team, I was like, balling, cause like, so many emotions. But I wasn’t, like, close to crying [in London]. I was just happy seeing Team USA cheering us on.” Sounds like, kinda like, cool, right?
When I ask to try on her medal she agrees without hesitation. She smiles and poses as if she’s taking a snapshot with one of her school friends. I realize that I am unreasonably excited to be meeting someone half my age, but I don’t care. It’s not every day you meet an Olympian.
With her eyes set on competing in the Rio games in 2016, Lia can look forward to the next four years of training and growing up. By Rio she will be 21. At least she’ll be able to celebrate her next medals with a cocktail.
In the meanwhile, there’s college visits to look forward to, and a few more seasons of her new favorite show to catch on Netflix. “Grey’s Anatomy” will premiere in a few weeks, and she’ll have to hurry to get caught up by then. All in all, it should be a pretty cool way to finish her last year of high school and definitely not a bad way to spend 17. Someone cue Frank Sinatra.
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