NEW YORK –– When she qualified for the Olympic Games in June, swimmer Lia Neal, a rising senior at the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Manhattan, said she felt like it was a dream.
On July 28, she and her three teammates on the U.S. swimming team claimed a bronze medal in the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay in London, and afterward Neal told reporters the experience was beyond her expectations.
Neal secured her spot for the relay after placing fourth in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., in late June. There she swam a personal best of 54.33 seconds for her leg of the relay.
“After touching the wall, I immediately turned around to look at the clock for my time,” she told Catholic New York July 9. “When I saw that I had come in fourth, I was in disbelief, and just when it began to make sense, I started bawling.”
“Even now when I tell people where I’m going, I don’t say ‘the Olympics,’ I say ‘London’ instead. I still feel like I’m in the dream state,” the 17-year-old athlete said in an interview via email with New York’s archdiocesan newspaper.
“I’m so glad and excited to have made the Olympic team because I know just how many people have been cheering for me, praying for me to make it,” she said. “I feel like I’m not only going into the games for myself, but also for everyone from school, parents, friends, and I hope to represent Sacred Heart, New York and the United States well.”
Her classmate, Isla Hutchinson Maddox, also qualified for the Olympic trials in Omaha but did not advance to the games. Both athletes, varsity swimmers at Sacred Heart since seventh grade, will serve as senior co-captains this school year.
“We’re very proud of both girls,” said Joseph J. Ciancaglini, head of the Convent of the Sacred Heart School. “They’re both great students, extremely respectful. I really couldn’t ask for better representatives of the school.”
Neal became the first student in school history to compete at the Olympics. The girls’ school was founded in 1881.
She also has made history on the national stage, as the second African-American woman swimmer representing the U.S. at the Olympics. Her father, Rome, is African-American; her mother, Siu, is Chinese-American.
Ciancaglini gave high marks to Neal’s comportment in and out of the pool.
“She worked very hard for this. She’s maintained a full academic load and has managed a very demanding training regimen,” he said, noting she participates in a Manhattan swim club besides swimming for her school.
He referenced St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, who founded the Society of the Sacred Heart, the religious order that established the school. She advocated that students be “contemplatives in action.”
Neal “brings that very gentle, thoughtful, loving attitude toward people with her and, at the same time, she’s a fierce competitor when she hits the water,” added Ciancaglini.
“She’s a tremendously hard-working young woman,” said Brad Dexter, Neal’s coach at school. “She’s a thinker, and when she speaks, she speaks with clarity and confidence. On deck, she positively reinforces the coach’s lineup as well as encourages other swimmers to swim with confidence. She’s a teacher, in a way.”
Neal started swimming lessons at age 6, “but before then I played around in the water with my parents, riding on my dad’s back,” she told Catholic New York.
Over the years she has had her ups and downs in swim meets, but that drives her competitive spirit, she said.
But it’s not all work and no play. She said she enjoys “going away for swim meets, meeting new friends and getting to be with your teammates every day.”
“Swimming takes a lot out of you but also gives back in generous amounts. It’s an endless cycle of giving and taking but, in the end, you benefit from it more,” she said.
Neal, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Brooklyn, said she is grateful for all of her accomplishments.
“I think one of the most important things is to be humble and have a sense of humility in whatever one does,” she said. “I also tend to think of and thank God whenever I accomplish something great.”
Chicoine is news editor at Catholic New York.