theGrio’s 100: Lia Neal, helping erase swimming’s ‘color line’

Who is Lia Neal?

Lia Neal became only the second African-American woman to make a U.S. Olympic swim team when she qualified for the 2012 London Games. Neal, 17, hails from Brooklyn, New York, and started swimming at the age of six.

Neal identifies as both African-American and Chinese, in honor of her mother’s heritage. Neal would go on to earn a bronze medal in the 4X100 meter freestlyle relay at the Olympics.

Why is she on theGrio’s 100?

Even before the Olympic Games, Neal was aware her participation was historic as an African-American female on the U.S. Olympic swim team.

“Whatever makes kids feel like they can look up to me and feel like they can accomplish the same things, that’s fine with me,” Neal told New York’s WNBC last July of the example she can set for young swimmers of color.

Neal, who Michelle Obama took time out to watch in London, became the first black female swimmer to earn a medal for the U.S. since Maritza Correia earned a silver in 2004. (Correia participated in heats only during the Olympics) While research shows upwards of 70 percent of black and Hispanic kids can’t swim, Neal along with other trailblazers like swimmer Cullen Jones are changing perceptions.

What’s next for Neal?

Ironically, Neal is currently swimming for her high school team at the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Manhattan. She’s been on the team since middle school and was encouraged by her club coach Rachel Stratton-Mills to remain an amateur so she could stay on the team. (her teammate Missy Franklin faced a similar dilemma and also decided to swim her senior year of high school)

Neal’s next stop will be Stanford, where she will join the swim team in the fall:

“Academics are of high importance to me,” she recently told Bob Schaller of USA Swimming. “There is a certain point where swimming will end. You have to make sure you have a good education and you have the best resources available to you.”

The bronze medalist also has her eyes set on the 2016 Olympics in Rio. More history-making swimming looks like it’s certainly in Neal’s future.

Follow Lia Neal on Twitter @LiaNeal