For most people, swimming is considered a leisure activity or a low-impact way to switch up a workout. For the elite few, like champion swimmer Lia Neal, swimming is a grueling professional sport and a promising career path. While she’s gained recognition on the national and global stages throughout her swimming career, Neal has also used her trailblazing efforts and community of fellow swimmers, athletes, and supporters to take on a new goal: social justice. We chatted with the Olympic bronze and silver medalist to learn more about her passion for the sport, her historic accomplishments on the collegiate and Olympic stage, and her personal commitment to fighting for social justice in the swimming community as a mixed-race woman of color.
AFTERSHOKZ: When did you know swimming was your passion?
LIA NEAL: I joined a swim team after completing all levels in swim lessons and I really could not see any other option other than to set and meet goals for myself going forth. Those goals ultimately led me to even bigger goals, like competing in the Olympics.
AS: Can you tell us a little bit more about your day-to-day life as a pro swimmer? What does your training regimen look like?
LN: On a normal, non-pandemic day, it would look like:
- Waking up at 6:15 am, making oatmeal and coffee
- Driving to 7:30 am swim practice
- Swimming for 2 hours
- Returning home for a second breakfast (avocado toast with egg)
- Nap for 1.5 hours
- Have a light lunch
- Work out in the gym/go to a spin class
- Head back to the pool for an afternoon practice session
- Drive home in traffic
- Prepare dinner, eat dinner, watch Netflix
- Wind down for bedtime
AS: How did it feel to compete and win silver at the Rio Olympics?
LN: I felt better prepared in terms of not getting overwhelmed and knowing more of what to expect after having competed in London 4 years prior. I felt more at home, not only because I was a little older, but also because I was close with a lot of the American swimmers as well as swimmers from other countries after having seen and competed with them at the same swim meets over the years.
AS: Do you have any advice for POC swimmers or amateur athletes who are hoping to one day compete on the Olympic-level stage?
LN: Set manageable goals for yourself. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew at one time. You’ll be able to progress through swimming more easily as long as you focus on yourself and not on others, and take it one goal at a time. Remember to be present and have fun too, because it goes by quickly!
AS: What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
LN: Helping lead my college team my senior year to our first national title in 19 years.
AS: As a mixed-race woman of color, how do you feel your experience as a professional swimmer has differed from your white colleagues?
LN: This is where my advice to "just do you” comes in. I was too preoccupied with achieving my own goals to notice any “disadvantages.” Looking back, I can now see how far I’ve come and appreciate the road I took to get to where I am, but if I had thought about it too much while I was on it, those achievements would’ve been more daunting.
AS: What inspired you to create Swimmers For Change?
LN: I wanted to create an organization to show that swimming, though a predominantly white sport, still has a majority of national team athletes, Paralympians, and Olympians that support the Black Lives Matter movement. I also wanted to provide a platform for them to show their support outright because staying silent is easy, but also detrimental.
AS: Tell us more about your foundation. What are a few ways people can get involved and support the cause?
LN: You can watch/rewatch every discussion episode on swimmersforchange.org. Right now, our focus is more about staying educated, practicing anti-racism, and understanding one another.
AS: What’s next for you? Both in and out of the water?
LN: Next step is business school!
AS: Is there anything else you think our readers should know?
LN: Have meaningful conversations, get to really know your friends, colleagues, coworkers. The only way to truly know one another is to communicate. Everyone has a story to tell.