YORKVILLE — Lia Neal began swimming when she was six years old.
At age 8, with a scholarship from Swim for the Future, the Fort Greene native joined the Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics team. And on July 28 at age 17, she joined the ranks of the world's best swimmers, winning an Olympic bronze medal as part of the Women’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay.
She received a hero’s welcome Friday at her home pool at Asphalt Green, where hundreds of kids were taking swimming lessons as part of a youth summer camp.
Little ones holding papier-mache Olympic torches, wearing plastic gold medals and waving American flags, watched wide-eyed as Neal walked the length of the pool to take her place at the podium.
Flanked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and with her parents nearby, Neal told the young swimmers that they “chose the right sport and always make sure that they have fun.”
When Neal was 5 years old, her father Jerome Neal took her to public pools in Manhattan. One day, she climbed up on his back, and as he walked across the pool floor, she pretended to swim.
“She was just having so much fun,” he said. “I see that as the beginning of her love for swimming.”
Training most days for the last nine years, Neal — who will be a senior at the Upper East Side's Convent of the Sacred Heart — has led a very different life from most teenagers.
Her mother gets the self-proclaimed “not a morning person” out of bed at 5 a.m. and drives her to practice before school. She practices again after school and for a couple of hours each weekend day.
Neal’s father said the medal belonged to his wife, Sui, who encouraged Neal to continue even when she didn’t believe in herself.
It wasn’t until about a month before the Olympic trials, during the Charlotte USA Swimming Grand Prix, that Neal actually began to believe that she had what it takes to go to the Olympics.
“She sent me a text from Charlotte,” her coach, Rachel Stratton-Mills said. “It said, 'I want to win, I want this really badly.'”
Her coach found the text a bit uncharacteristic of Neal, and she knew that she was starting to finally see herself as Stratton-Mills did: a champion.
Neal is the second African-American woman to ever make the U.S. Olympic swim team.
“It is almost like making history,” Neal said. “Though, Maritza Correia came before me.”
Neal's supporters include celebrities such as Mike Tyson and Spike Lee, along with members of the Fort Greene community.
“I thank my Fort Greene neighbors so much for their support,” she said. “I haven’t even met most of them, yet there was an outpouring of tweets and prayers. I feel so blessed to have them in my life.”
When asked about her parents' support, Neal answered, “They don’t know how much they mean to me."
She was unable to finish the sentence as she put her head in her hands and began to cry.
Two of her three older brothers were also in London to cheer her on. “I am just really lucky to have my brothers and parent’s support,” said Neal through her tears.
“Seeing those tears of joy and gratitude was a wonderful thing for a father,” her dad said later. “I told her early on that there’s no need to cry if you lose, just cry tears of joy when you win.”