Power in the Present
with Lia Neal
17 Jul, 2020 · Swimming
Lia Neal, Professional Swimmer and 2x Olympic Medalist, discusses her incredible journey in sport as she shares her mindset while facing adversity in sport, the importance of resisting self-comparison, and the power in finding your purpose.
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Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.
Today our guest is Lia Neal, a professional swimmer, a two-time Olympic medalist, and former Division 1 swimmer at Stanford University, where she won a national championship. Her journey as a swimmer started in her home city of Brooklyn, New York, and she went on to qualify for the 2012 Olympic team at just 17. Lia became the first black woman to swim in an Olympic final for the U.S., as she helped Team USA win a bronze medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay in 2012, and a silver medal in 2016 in the same race. Lia shares with us her incredible journey to the highest level of sport, dealing with pressures surrounding both her mind and body as she transitioned to college and professional levels. We also discuss her mindset while facing adversity in sport, the importance of resisting self-comparison, and the power in finding your purpose. Lia, welcome to the Voice in Sport Podcast.
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Thank you for having me Stef.
So, let's start with your journey. I think it's always important to know where athletes started. So, from the very beginning, when you started sport to where you are now, post-college, give us the rundown.
Yeah. I'll try to be as concise with it as possible since it's been a while that I've been in the sport. I started taking lessons in the first grade because my classmate's friends were taking lessons. They, and their parents, urged my mom to have me enrolled in those same classes with them My mom thought it'd be a good opportunity for me to actually learn the strokes properly because prior to that, I'd just been playing around in the water and, if anything, it would've made me even more comfortable on the water and just learn this life saving skill. So, I did those lessons for two years. I completed all the levels, and then the next thing to do after that was to join a swim team and start competing, which is what I did at eight. I joined Asphalt Green, and I swam there from the ages of eight to 18. So basically, going off to college and, in that time, I just progressed pretty rapidly.
Technique was always a huge factor in my swimming- something I've always paid attention to and made sure I had a good base, a good foundation, just starting off in swimming and have always revisited all of that throughout my career. So, I think I pay a lot of my accomplishments to that.
So I made junior national teams. I always was taking it one step at a time, trying to go best times, trying to break team records, trying to break Metro New York state records, and then break national age group records, and then represent Team USA's 18 and under team, which had allowed me to travel the world and go to places I never would have been to, places like Guam, Peru, Stockholm, Sweden, Moscow, Russia, and also got to meet such cool people, not only within the US, being teammates with them, but also international friends as well.
That's allowed me further down the line to go to Australia and the Netherlands, and train with my friends over there. So, super grateful of all the people I've met in swimming. In doing all that, by the time it was 2012, I had already made six junior national teams. So, I wanted to finally make the national team and kind of level up that way. So just so happened that that was the Olympic team that year. So, it wasn't really until a few months before our Olympic trials in Nebraska, that I believed that I had a chance of making the team, because it was at the Charlotte Grand Prix in North Carolina where I had won my first national level meet, and I'd beat the likes of Jessica Hardy and Natalie Coughlin, two people that I really respected in the sport.
And that's what fueled my confidence going into 2012. So, in 2012, I had the 200 free, 100 free, 50 free at the trials. If anything, the 200 free would have been my best shot at making the team. But that was my first event. It was the first day. I was super nervous. You could tell everyone's times were a bit slower than what they normally are on the first day, because everyone is just so nervous; trials is the most nerve-wracking thing, more so than the actual Olympics. I added three seconds in the 200 free, didn't make it back for a second swim. I was pretty devastated because I thought that my Olympic dreams had slipped away from me because I just let my nerves get the best of me. But I knew two, three days later I had the a 100 free, which was another opportunity to make the team. It was going to be a bit tougher, but still a chance that I was given. Really refocused, knew not to let my nerves get the best of me, and took it one session at a time.
Prelims- my goal was just to make it back for the semifinals. And then that's top 16 and then semifinals- my goal was to make top eight. I came in eighth exactly, and got to swim in the final the following day, and I knew that all I had to do was beat two other people to make top six so I can make the team.
I ended up coming in fourth, and that was a shock because I kept envisioning a six next to my name. So that was my first experience with making the Olympic team, which was a really cool experience, obviously.
And how old were you?
I was 17. Summer after my junior year of high school. And then I came back, finished up high school after that, and then got recruited to swim at Stanford, where I swam for all four years. Summer after my junior year of college, this time made the 100 free again for the 400 freestyle relay and won a silver medal.
And then after that, went back to school to finish up my last year of college swimming and I was co-captain alongside my teammate and friend, and roommate, Nicole Stafford. And we helped lead our team to its first national championship in 19 years. That was super sweet, a very bittersweet moment just to see it all end, to see this like chapter close, but to have it end in the best way possible.
Since exhausting my college eligibility, I wasn't really sure if I wanted to continue to swim or not. But with the timeline and the way that things lined up, I was like, I might as well continue swimming another few months because our season ended in March and the big international meet would be in July.
So, I could have been done swimming with the end of my senior year, but I was like, I want to try out this pro swimming thing and see what that's like. And to my surprise, it was actually a lot different than amateur swimming. I thought that the only difference is that you can make money now, but-
So, what are the big differences?
It's a lot more independent. For college swimming, you do things as a team for your team. In pro swimming, you're doing things more individual. You have to be more selfish if you want to do well. You have to want to do it for yourself, which was kind of new for me, and I think that's why I've always really thrived being on relays, just because those were opportunities where I wasn't swimming for myself. I was swimming for those three other girls on my relay team. Also, obviously for our collective team as a whole.
So, it was hard having your performance not really impact anyone else. It's hard to keep motivated that way, but you just have to learn to put yourself first, which I think is a lesson that everyone needs to learn at some point anyways. In all aspects of life, you have to learn to be a little bit selfish, even though selfish has a negative connotation, but I think it is necessary.
Yeah. So, tell me about the pro circuit in terms of how men and women's swimming is organized because a lot of pro teams- we've talked about this before- they have men's and women's separate. Then the women's leagues, they tend to get paid less and have fewer fans show up.
So, why do you think on the pro side for swimming, it's been set up in a really nice way?
Yeah. Swimming is more unique in that it's not separated men versus women, unless you're literally breaking it down by event. You only have men racing each other and then women racing each other, just purely because of physicality. In terms of rationing money, first of all, it's swimming- doesn't nearly get enough money in general for its athletes.
Are you able to do full time swimming and living?
No. I would say there was like a 1% for sure that could probably do that. But then there's costs to it, cause you're putting your body through so much. Swimming is taking some measures now and going in the right direction with compensating their athletes, but it's still very much in the beginning stages of it. It will take some time, and may not be for my generation, but we're definitely taking measures for future generations.
That makes it hard. It is a full-time job to be a professional athlete. Hopefully it gets to a place where you can actually pay men and women to be in it full time. You talk a little bit about nerves that you had going into some of your meets. I was a swimmer in high school, not nearly close to the level you're at, but every time you get up and you're about to go, it's pressure. You've done it at the highest level, so talk to us about that mindset at that elite level mentally. What tips would you pass on to other athletes in different sports?
I think mentally I was stronger when I was younger, purely because I didn't know what was going on. And I feel like that ignorance worked in my favor for sure. I didn't know what everyone else was up to. All I knew was just to focus on myself and worry about my own race and my own technique, which is what you want to do. Ideally, you don't want to focus your energy on other people because that's just a waste. Be able to control your controllables. I know which is cliché, but there is truth to it, for sure. I feel like when you grow older, and just in general, there’s more going on in our heads. It's been like a collection of every thought that we've ever had, our whole lives. Yes, we're getting older and wiser, but we're also getting analytical to a fault, and it starts working against us. I've realized in professional swimming, just being so far into my swim career, it really helps and it is really beneficial to go back to having a childlike mindset, just being more carefree and not focusing on what others are doing until you don't have that ability anymore. It becomes way harder to shut your mind.
So, what do you do now that you're older and you're more in it and now you're more in your head. Are there techniques you do right before you step out there to the pool or in your warmup routine?
Yeah. I try to work on technique as much as possible in practice. This has also been a learning experience for me. It got to a point where I was thinking too much about technique that it was driving my technique through the ground. I was hypersensitive to every feel in my stroke that it just wasn't working for me, it was working against me. So, I learned that I need to tell my brain to shut up, to a certain extent. So, I need to think of just one or two things, just keep it simple. That's helped a bit, and just calming all my thoughts within practice.
But yeah, just working on like one or two things every practice and really perfecting those things will help those things become second nature once you get to a meet so you don't have to overthink too much and you can just focus on yourself and focus on your own lane and now all you have to do is go fast. Don’t think about technique anymore. Just go fast and race.
Did you guys ever have any sports psychs or any coaches that would teach you certain things to practice?
Well, USA swimming has some sports psych resources. I started working with a sports psych uring my senior year of college, just because I was having a hard time, especially then. And that was when I really needed to actually reach out to someone for help. Not just as a check in. I actually got to the point where I was like, okay, it's gotten so bad that I need to meet with someone, because I wasn't sure if I could finish swimming even senior year, collegiately. Then since moving out to San Diego, I was really lucky to have found someone who works with the training center in Chula Vista, and it was like 40 minutes from where I live.
So, for a lot of our first few meetings, I would drive down there and meet with her after lifting down there. So yeah, that's been really helpful and being able to talk to someone and just get your thoughts out of your own head, and really hear yourself saying those things and talking you through it, I think it was really necessary. And with pro swimming, I definitely needed it a lot. Just because I was looking for some guidance, because you kind of feel you're dropped into the ocean and then you have to figure everything out on your own. So, I needed guidance. Then when things were good, I stopped reaching out just because I'm like okay, things are fine. But then when things build up again, I reach back out. I think it's definitely better to have the consistent communication.
Well, it's good though, asking for help, being able to acknowledge: Hey, I'm getting to that moment right now where I'm not in a good place. Gonna talk to somebody. That's super important to be aware. Can you tell us about the challenge then that you faced in college, where you first reached out to sports psych?
Was there something that happened, some adversity that you had to overcome, that you could share with us?
I think I was just plateauing for a while. All throughout college, I was dropping time, in short course yards no problem. You go from dividing your attention from long course and short course in high school to go into college and pretty much focusing only on short course, because that's what NCAAs and PAC12s are.
So, my training in short course wasfine. I was dropping time, no problem in that, but long course, however, I was not dropping time. And by senior year, obviously it would have been four years of me just staying around the same time as what I was prior to entering college.
So, I think I was getting frustrated with that. And then the training is just harder as well. All of my teammates could attest to this, each year training was getting harder and harder and you're physically getting older too. So not only is the training harder, but then you have more obstacles to overcome with age as well. So, things were just pretty hard, just getting through, but obviously I'm glad that I stuck it out and ended up being a part of the national championship team.
What got you through it in the end?
I remember when I was talking to the sports psych, I was like, I want to quit. He was like, well, you can, you do have an option. I was like, yeah I do, but I don't, because I've been swimming for so long. I'm not just going to quit my senior year. That would have been such a waste.
And he was like, okay so just take it one thing at a time, because also if I can't even finish college swimming, I don't even even know what I'm gonna do post-college, if I'm going to continue swimming as a professional and he's like, don't think so far in advance, just finish this college season or don't.
Figure this out first. And then after NCAAs in March, you can think about the next step. So, I think that was helpful. Obviously, I'm still thinking about professional swimming and the future beyond college swimming, in the back of my mind, always, but it was nice to know that I didn't have to have it all figured out, like at that moment.
It took off some of the pressure a little bit.
For sure. That's definitely something I still need to remind myself. I don't have to have the answers right away. But I think I just really liked to have things planned out.
A lot of athletes, we're goal oriented and we want to be imagining ourselves here or there and then going after it. So sometimes I think that's just like a natural way that we're geared towards life. It's sometimes hard to enjoy and rejoice in the moments that you do win and celebrate, because you're onto the next thing. I remember for a moment, in my life, I think it was right around college, I read this book, The Power of Now, and I tried to focus on more enjoying and celebrating the moments right when I won or right after a goal and tried to make those moments last a little longer than immediately skipping onto the next thing.
The timing of you reading that book came at the perfect prime time. You're experiencing so much in college. That's definitely something when people ask me, if I could give my younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
And I would always answer, live in the moment more. I wish I were more present, just because with setting those goals, you're always looking forward, so you don't really appreciate actually accomplishing the goals, you’re just looking towards the next thing, which was similar to my 2012 experience as well.
We had training camp in Tennessee at first and I was looking forward to the next training camp, which was in France. And then when I was in France, I was looking forward to finally going to London. Just never being present.
Right. That's such a good lesson and a great reminder for all of us to enjoy those moments that you're in, especially looking back in college. It was the hardest moments being a college student athlete, but I wish I would have enjoyed it more. I was pretty stressed about my body, about school, about everything. Looking back on it now, I'm like, wow, that was such an amazing moment I wish I would have cherished more. You're going through a lot then, so let's talk about some of the things you're going through at that point. One of them is body change. You get to college athletics and you start getting into the weight room, and in some cases, you’re training seven days a week in the weight room and your body starts to change. Did you have similar things happen for you, whether it was in college or at different moments when you were continuing to go after your goals, where you faced body challenges? And how did you work through those?
The first thing that comes to mind is freshman 15. So going to college, that was my first time lifting, and we were lifting three times a week and I put on muscle pretty quickly as well.
I already have that physique without doing anything. So, I was putting on muscle very easily. In addition to that, with buffet offerings, and you don't have your parents anymore, it was all these different factors that there is no way that you can stay the same weight. It is just not possible. And that's why it was confusing for me, because I didn't know if I was gaining weight because of extra muscle mass, or if it was because I was overeating. But I remember when I would come home to New York and live with my parents again, my mom would be like straight up, you gained weight, for sure.
And I'd always be like, no, it's just muscle. I was like, we're lifting so much, trust me, it's muscle. That's what I told myself all of college.
I feel like that's a fair point. I have in my head that it was all my weightlifting, but in reality, I probably also wasn't very knowledgeable about what's the right thing to eat. I think a lot of athletes today in college are not quite sure how to fuel their body.
Then also, my mom is Chinese. Our culture is just to finish everything on your plate, no matter what. So I literally did not realize until halfway through college, I didn't have to finish everything on my plate if I didn't want to. If I were full, I could just stop.
So, that was a revolutionary thing for me to learn. I was like, Mom, we don't have to do this ourselves. It was hard for her to even comprehend.
After that freshman year, did you go into your second year a little bit more balanced? Did you change your weightlifting routine, or do you think it was the eating that got you to a better place?
I don't even know if it was a hard stop at freshman year. I think my weightlifting routine remained the same, but I think I wasn't in awe of the food offered anymore. It became more normal, like, yes, this is going to be there the next day, I don't have to eat everything. I learned to have better nutrition as well.
So, if you had to look back at your whole journey: multiple Olympics, college, what would you say was the most challenging moment you had and looking back, what did you learn from it?
The most challenging is definitely comparing myself a lot to other people. Comparing yourself is like the worst thing that you could do. We had a meeting with my pro team in the San Diego over Zoom and we're talking about confidence, particularly in one of my teammates who was like the guinea pig of this meeting. We were talking about his strengths and weaknesses, and he had mentioned confidence. I really related to it because he talks about how he compares himself a lot to the people in his training group.
And that just really resonated with me because it is so easy to do that when you see these people every day, multiple times a day, and you're all working towards the same thing. What I realized in that meeting though, is that a lot of the time we compare our worst weaknesses to other people's best strengths, which is also an unrealistic comparison, because you're so in your own head. You have the worst thoughts of yourself in your own head and that's not necessarily things that other people outside of you see, but we're all our own worst critics in our own heads.
And the way that we see other people is in this perfect light, that perfect aura, and what we have in our own heads of ourselves is what we're comparing to that perfect image of other people. And that's just not healthy. It's not realistic. In order to avoid that all together, you can appreciate other people, use other people to push you, but use them only in the best ways that are going to benefit you. Don't look to them to be self-deprecating towards yourself because it starts getting detrimental to your confidence, to your mental health, to everything.
Such good advice. I'm curious to know what you guys are doing as a team sitting around and talking about strengths and weaknesses. So do you guys pick a different person each week?
We have guests who come in and join our Zooms every so often. This one was a psychologist, who actually swam at Stanford. So, he was doing this exercise with one of our teammates.
Gotcha. Was it helpful?
Yeah, it was helpful. It definitely forced him to be vulnerable, and him being vulnerable, it allowed for us, his teammates, to understand what was really going on in his head and to actually voice to him that that's not at all how we see him, and he shouldn't think that way of himself, and that he holds all of his training partners to such a high regard, his training partners don't see themselves as that either.
It was all very eye opening.
In terms of team dynamics, exercises like that can be really important for people to talk about how they feel, and creating an environment is the most important thing so that people can feel comfortable to talk about that. So that’s awesome you guys are doing that.
We had a meeting like that once in college, where we talked about what pushes us, what we like to hear that'll get us going because different people get motivated in different ways. Some people like need to be yelled at in practice. Some people need silence.
That was really helpful, except we only did it once and then I'm sure everyone forgot like 90% of what everyone said after that. But if that were a thing that was actually brought up more often, I think that could do wonders for a team.
So, everybody went around and said what motivates them?
Yeah. What they would like or not like for their teammates to do in practice in order to push them.
That’s a good exercise for anyone to do. I'm curious to know how music helps you prepare for your training and if you use music in a way for either the mental side or the physical side, or to keep you calm? Is it part of your sport in some way?
Since this quarantine in New York, one of the things I miss most is driving in California and blasting music and singing along. I do that almost to every practice and It's just so fun. Music is a huge part of my life and I just really enjoy it.
I still haven't gotten down what kind of music is the perfect genre for me at a swim meet. Do I need something that gets me really hyped or do I need something that calms me down because I tend to get nervous and anxious and sometimes really hypes music freaks me out?
I don’t know, at the last meet, I was listening to Beyoncé’s Coachella live album, and I really liked that.
What would be three words to describe your journey in sport?
Okay. Leader, resilient and veteran.
What is one piece of advice you would give to girls out there in sport today?
I would say be present, be grounded. Live in the moment. Embrace every moment, every struggle, every happy moment because they're all important experiences and just know that sport is such a minor part of your life. So you want to make sure that you make the most of it because it'll be over before you know it.
Such good advice.
There's a quote that I really like. I actually have it here in my room, that I got in 2012. Teri McKeever was the women's head coach. And she handed all these out because it's a tradition that they have at Cal. And mine reads “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is giving your gift away.”
And what do you think your purpose is?
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I think my purpose with my platform and my accomplishments and the life that I was born into, I think, is the perfect opportunity to provide for the future generations what's been provided for me and then some. I am so fortunate to have been given scholarships to swim, and to have been able to go to Sacred Heart for high school and to have been able to swim and study at Stanford University.
If it weren't for those, my life would have been on a totally different path. I didn't realize these things or just how much it's helped until I've become an adult myself. And I just want to be able to provide the same thing for other people starting off in similar situations that I started off in or even worse.
Unfortunately, economics comes into play with sports, and if your parents are going to be there to support you, if they're going to take you to practices or not, if they have the money to pay for the club teams. There are a lot of reasons girls fall out a sport. It's inspiring that that's an area of focus for you. So, thank you.
And what you're doing to provide this platform.
Thank you Lia. We loved your stories surrounding mental health, handling pressure, and encouraging us all to have confidence- Always remembering to live in the moment. We love what you are doing with Swimmers For Change. You are raising awareness about racial injustices, and using your platform to advocate for change. You can follow Lia on her instagram @lia_neal. Please subscribe to the Voice in Sport Podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok @voiceinsport and if you are interested in advocating for female athletes check out voiceinsport.com and voiceinsporfoundation.org.
Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creator™ Liz Boyer