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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Q&A with teen phenom Lia Neal

By Amy Rosewater
Special to ESPN.com

Lia Neal's path in the pool intersected with that of Dara Torres at the Olympic trials last June. Both competed in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events in Omaha, Neb.

The big difference: Torres was 41. Neal was 13.

Torres wound up making her fifth appearance in an Olympics, while Neal's sole goal was just to swim at the trials. But if Torres is the epitome of swimming's past and recent present, Neal, who turned 14 on Feb. 13, is a sign of great things to come in the future.

Neal finished 28th in the 50 free at the trials and was clocked at 25.89 seconds, 1.39 behind winner Lara Johnson (who was born in 1986). Torres, meanwhile, who was born in 1967, was third. In the 100, Neal ranked 78th with a time of 57.31 seconds, 3.67 seconds slower than winner Natalie Coughlin.

Lia Neal
Lia Neal trains at the Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics club in New York.

But it's not only Neal's speed and age that is causing her to make waves in the swimming world. She stands out because of her size -- she's 5-foot-8 -- and her dark skin. Her mother, Siu, is from Hong Kong, and her father, Jerome, is African-American and hails from New York. In swimming, where a handful of minorities have found success, Neal has already had some referring to her as the Tiger Woods of the water.

She and her family are trying to keep things as low-key as possible. As her mother said, "She's just being herself. She doesn't want to make a big deal about it because she still has a long way to go."

No one in Neal's family swims competitively -- she is the youngest and has three older brothers -- and she picked up the sport at a learn-to-swim class in Chinatown.

Now, she's an eighth-grader who goes to school at Convent of the Sacred Heart on the Upper East Side in New York and is a full-time student. Her favorite school subjects are art and science. She's also trying to tackle Chinese. Her mom speaks Cantonese, and Neal can speak a bit of that language, but at school, Neal is learning Mandarin.

Her school has been supportive of her swimming, often helping her make up homework when she has to travel for meets. In January, Neal traveled to Guam to compete in the Junior Pan Pacific Championships. There, she earned a silver medal in the 50 free and was clocked at 25.82 seconds -- .02 of a second behind the Australian gold medalist -- but Neal lowered her own national age-group record in the process.

Neal has worked with coach Brian Brown of the Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics club since she was 8. Brown called Neal's rise to success "pretty compelling," and when asked if she reminded him of any other swimmer, he paused and then said, "Not that anyone I've ever worked with."

But Neal has shown she can handle adversity like the big girls do.

"At one race, she really showed me how she's matured," Brown said. "You know those swimsuits that tear really easily? Well, the zipper popped in the middle of the race, but Lia kept on swimming. She didn't have any tears. I asked her about it afterward and she said she saw it happen to Dara Torres in a race once."

Apparently, Neal is already taking a part of Torres' baton.

Here is what she had to say as part of a recent interview with ESPN.com:

Question from Amy Rosewater: How did you start your swimming career?

Answer from Lia Neal: I started taking swim lessons when I was in first grade and then I told my mom to take me to more.

Q: So you were about 6 when you started; how old were you when you knew you had some talent?

A: I don't really know when I got good. I do remember one time I had to swim either the 100 [individual medley] or the 100 butterfly, I can't remember which one, and I was just dying. I couldn't do it. I know that when I was 6, my best stroke was backstroke.

Q: Your best stroke now is the freestyle. What's your weakest link?

A: [Laughing] Probably backstroke.

Q: How did you fit in with the older swimmers at the Olympic trials?

A: I fit in pretty well. The Olympic trials was just amazing, the whole atmosphere. It was all about racing and I got to see some really fast times.

Q: Did you seek out any autographs while you were there?

A: No. I was just excited to see people.

Q: What emotions did you have when you qualified for the trials?

A: I really couldn't believe my eyes. I experienced so many feelings, mainly excitement and confusion.

Q: What do you do when you're not swimming?

A: A lot of homework. But I do go online and talk to my friends a lot, too.

Q: What do you and your friends like to do?

A: Go to movies. Eat out.

Q: Speaking of eating, a lot has been made of Michael Phelps and the amazing number of calories he can pack away. Do you have any idea how many calories you consume?

A: [Laughing] No. I don't count. But I can tell you that I eat a lot.

Q: What was your reaction to the recent controversy surrounding the photo of Phelps with a marijuana pipe?

A: I was talking about it with my friends and I think he's just a typical 23-year-old. I didn't really care that much.

Q: What's on your iPod these days?

A: All kinds of music, but mainly upbeat songs. I'm starting to like Vampire Weekend. I do make playlists for when we do our dry-land workouts. Let me check what's on there now [pause] ... hmm. OK. Canned Heat.

Q: How are you at practices? Are you super-serious?

A: Practices are the only time I get to see my swim friends, so I talk to them as much as possible. I don't get too nervous when I swim. Really, the first time I ever was really nervous was at the Olympic trials. I was nervous, but it was more nervous energy.

Q: What could you improve with your swimming?

A: My starts could definitely be faster and I need to work on my reaction time more. In the 100, I can work on my flip turns.

Q: Now that you've been part of the Olympic trials and been around some of the world's best swimmers, can you imagine what it would be like to make the Olympic team?

A: If I made the Olympic team, that would be really great. I know that when I was with the junior national team, we had a lot of fun together. I think we'd have a great time again.

Q: You recently got to hang out with members of the junior national team at the Junior Pan Pacifics in Guam. How was that?

A: After the Junior Pan Pacifics meet, I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was so much fun.

Q: What were other perks from the event?

A: I also got to skip school. I had a lot to catch up on.

Q: How do you handle the media attention you've received? You were already featured in The New York Times.

A: At school, they made a plaque of The New York Times article and showed it to everyone. The other students know I'm a swimmer. I am just having fun.

Q: I'd be remiss if we didn't bring up the topic of Black History Month. How aware are you of Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones and the efforts he has made to encourage young minority athletes to swim?

A: I think he's a really good swimmer and he does really well at what he's been doing. I saw him once [at the Golden Goggles] and asked him to take his picture with me and my friends.

Q: Where do you keep the picture?

A: It's in my computer.

Q: How do you look at yourself in terms of being a role model, especially for minorities?

A: Maybe I'm someone at least kids could look up to.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.