7/20/12 | 1825 views
Convent of the Sacred Heart Swimmer Bringing Home the Bronze
Swimmer Lia Neal, a senior at Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Manhattan, is representing the United States at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
On July 28, she and three teammates on the U.S. women’s swimming team claimed a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay—Lia swam in both the preliminary and final competitions—and afterward she told reporters the experience exceeded her expectations.
She secured a spot on the 4x100-meter freestyle relay after placing fourth in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha last month. For her Olympic berth, she swam a personal best (54.33 secs.) in the trial final.
“After touching the wall, I immediately turned around to look at the clock for my time,” Lia said. “When I saw that I had come in fourth, I was in disbelief, and just when it began to make sense I started bawling.”
The reality of her accomplishment had yet to fully hit the unassuming 17-year-old athlete by the time of her email interview with CNY July 9. “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.”
“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 and teammate, 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 coming year.
“We’re very proud of both girls,” said Joseph J. Ciancaglini, head of school at Convent of the Sacred Heart. “They’re both great students, extremely respectful. I really couldn’t ask for better representatives of the school.”
Lia became the first student in the school’s history to compete at the Olympics. The girls’ school was founded in 1881.
She has also made history on the national stage, as the second African-American woman swimmer representing the United States at the Olympics. Her father, Rome, is African-American; her mother, Siu, is Chinese-American.
The head of school gave high marks to his pupil’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, not only participating for her club (Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics, also in Manhattan, a USA Swimming competitive swim team) but also swimming for her school. I was very happy for her.”
He referenced St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, R.S.C.J, who founded the Society of the Sacred Heart which established the school. She advocated that students be “contemplatives in action.”
Ciancaglini said, “(Lia) 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.”
The administration of Sacred Heart School was well represented at the Olympic Trials. In addition to the head of school, the head of the upper school, the athletic director and the swim coach attended.
“In all the talks she gave afterward, she made a point of recognizing her classmates and her friends as key parts of this,” Ciancaglini said.
Brad Dexter, Lia’s coach at Convent of the Sacred Heart, is also delighting in his athlete’s accomplishment.
“Just a few months ago she was swimming on her high school team,” he said, “and here she is with the best swimmers…and she’s holding her own.”
The coach was quick to add that he is only one of a team of coaches on the school, club and national levels who have helped to guide Lia’s progress.
“I’d like to think we were a little bit a part of that wonder, but the simple fact is that she trains year-round and the school season is November to February...We’re thrilled to be part of this experience,” he said.
“She’s a tremendously hard-working young woman,” he added. “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.”
Since the Olympic Trials, Lia and her Olympic teammates have trained in Tennessee and France then traveled to London for final preparations and participation in the Games.
At age 6, she started swimming lessons, “but before then I played around in the water with my parents, riding on my dad’s back,” she said.
Her first competitive swim meet, toward the end of her formal swim instructions, was the 100 IM (individual medley). “It was the most painful experience of my life at the time,” she said. “I was in the lead after the first leg, butterfly, but came in last after that.”
Such “ups and downs” drive her competitive spirit, she said.
“The downs are obviously repetitious practices, adding time, not being able to feel smooth in the water, et cetera, but those moments are what make the feeling of going a best time or making Junior National or National Teams all the better, and knowing all of the time and effort you’ve put into swimming before you take the blocks for your race.”
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.
Lia, a parishioner of Sacred Heart 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.”
She was candid about what she personally expected from her Olympic debut, and what it would take to medal there.
“I just hope that no matter what relay I’m put on, l’ll be at the top of my game and ready to race and help contribute to getting the U.S.A. a spot on the podium.”
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