New York City Splash

by Casey Barrett

Lia Neal: Olympian, New Yorker, Young Ambassador…

Forget the stars for a moment. Take a look over at lane eight. You’ll find a young Olympian from somewhere different – the greatest city on earth. About time Gotham got on the map. Lia Neal, lives in Brooklyn, trains in Manhattan, is now an Olympian.

Are you familiar with her story? You can be forgiven if not. Last night in Omaha was one of the all time great nights of swimming. Every superstar delivered. Lochte, Phelps, Franklin, Soni, Coughlin, every last A-lister was in action Saturday night, and every one of them made the Team. Nights like that, it’s easy to miss something special happening over in those end lanes…

A brief history of 17-year-old Lia Neal: She’s been a record-setting phenom forever. She broke National Age Group records in the sprints at age 10 and 12. Four years ago, she made Trials at age 12. The New York Times ran a feature on her at 13. They wrote about more than her precocious talent. See, Lia Neal could also be the poster child for the Make a Splash campaign. She’s a biracial barrier breaker. Her dad is African-American and her mom is Asian. (As my wife and I affectionately refer to our daughter – she’s a “halfsie.”)

Last night she became just the second African-American woman to make a U.S. Olympic swim team. (Maritza Correia was the first, back in 2004…) I’d like to add that she’s also the second halfise to make the Team in 2012. Nathan Adrian is also half Asian. Must be something to those Chinese moms with the sprinters!

This diversity will generate plenty of press, and rightly so. It’s the best possible thing that could happen to this sport. Swimming needs more color. And I mean that in more than just the literal black and white sense. We need more melting in the pot. That also extends to where these Olympians come from. Cities, not just roots.

The procession of California, Florida, and Texas gets a little old sometimes. Swimmers come from the other 47 states too. But how many come from New York City? Has there ever been another U.S. Olympic swimmer born and bred from NYC? Not to my knowledge. At least not since World War II.

New Yorkers have pride in excess. Actually, we have pretty much everything in excess. The best and the brightest come here. You either make it, or your spirits are broken and you limp away to more relaxed pastures. (As Sinatra crooned: “If I can make it here…”) But for all that we-can-do-anything ambition, Gotham has never produced many great swimmers. This is understandable, I suppose. It’s a tough place to be an athlete. Temptation is ubiquitous. Distractions are endless. Not an easy town for a teenager to wake before dawn and take the subway over to morning workout.

But Lia Neal just did it. From way out in lane eight, she charged onto the Olympic team with a tough 4th place finish in the 100 free. There won’t be small town parades in her honor; her local paper won’t put her on the front page; her school probably won’t treat her like an OMG deity. Those sorts of reactions are nice, but they’re for smaller towns. That is, everywhere else. Back home, there is sure to be plenty of praise for Lia. But it will be New York style. No bullshit, totally genuine props, followed by the impatient and hard to impress ‘what’s next?’

For Lia Neal, that could mean relay gold in London. She’s an Olympian from New York City.

Strike up the Sinatra. She won’t be the last.