Mark Humphrey/Associated Press – Lia Neal, from left, Allison Schmitt, Missy Franklin and Jessica Hardy pose during the medal ceremony for the women’s 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials on Saturday, June 30, 2012, in Omaha, Neb.
By Associated Press, Published: June 30
OMAHA, Neb. — Lia Neal showed that Olympic swimmers don’t necessarily have to come from California, Florida or any other warm-weather state.
She became the pride of New York City on Saturday night at the trials when she came in fourth in the 100-meter freestyle finals. Her finish gave her a spot on the 400 freestyle relay team.
The 17-year-old Neal also became the second African-American woman to make a U.S. Olympic swim team.
“It’s a pretty big title,” said Neal, who is half-African American, half-Chinese.
The first black woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team was Maritza Correia, a silver medalist in the 4×100 freestyle relay in 2004.
“I definitely knew about Maritza Correia being the first one,” Neal said. “I never thought about me being the second one going into the race, but I guess that’s really a cool title to have.”
Neal, gold medalist in the 100 freestyle at the World Junior Championships, competed in the trials when she was 13 but didn’t come close to making it out of prelims in the 50 and 100 free.
She sneaked into the 100 finals with an eighth-place finish in Friday’s semifinals, at 54.60 seconds. She clocked a 54.33 on Saturday, behind Jessica Hardy, Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt.
“Those last few strokes were really tough,” Neal said through tears of joy. “I felt at that point I was just flailing my arms, doing whatever I could to get to the wall. When I first saw my time, I was in complete shock. It’s crazy.”
Neal, who lives in Brooklyn, started taking swimming lessons with friends when she was 6. She showed promise, and a swim mom recommended when she was 8 that she try out for a swim team. She’s been training ever since with Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
“Actually, not many people know about Asphalt Green,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful pools in New York City. I think swimming is becoming a bigger and bigger thing in the city.”
SONI WINS EASILY: No upset this time. Defending Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni won going away in the 200-meter breaststroke finals.
Soni, who finished second to unheralded Breeja Larson in the 100 breaststroke Wednesday, broke her own trials record in finishing in 2 minutes, 21.13 seconds Saturday.
“Happy with the race — good time, faster than yesterday. That’s all I can ask for,” Soni said. “I know I’m always a little nervous to push it too soon. I felt great the first 100, nice and long.”
Runner-up Micah Lawrence took second in 2:23.03 to become a first-time Olympian. She said she’s wanted to go to the Olympics since she was 7, when five-time medalist Josh Davis visited her church in Pflugerville, Texas.
“He let us touch his medals,” Lawrence said, “and that sparked the dream.”
SURHOFF THE SWIMMER: Austin Surhoff is trying to make a name for himself at swimming’s highest level. For now, he’s still better known as the son of retired major-leaguer B.J. Surhoff.
Austin, who will be a senior at the University of Texas this fall, was fourth in the 200-meter individual medley. It was his first trials final, and he had to go against a couple guys named Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Austin said he competed with no fear — something he says he learned from his dad.
“You try to hang with them,” Austin said. “I know they’re the best, but it doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re in a race with someone, try to beat him. With me, it’s a little less pressure because I’m not those guys. It’s my job to go out there and execute my own race plan and have fun.”
As for escaping his father’s shadow, Austin isn’t worried about it.
B.J. Surhoff played 19 years, mostly with the Baltimore Orioles. He was a career .282 batter from 1987-2005.
“I couldn’t be more proud of that,” Austin said. “He didn’t swim. My mom was a swimmer. He had the mindset of the swimmer. Being a competitor crosses over to all sports. When you break it down to basics is when you’re at your most effective. He gives me the basics of competitiveness and hard work and not being afraid of anybody.”
His mom, the former Polly Winde, swam for the University of North Carolina. She won the Atlantic Coast Conference title in the 400 IM every year from 1983-86, and she still holds the school record in the event.
She just missed going to the Olympics in 1984 when she finished third in the 400 IM.
LEARNING FROM LEGENDS: A few miles from the pool where the U.S. Olympic team is being picked, hundreds of kids got a chance to learn what the experience is like from those in the know.
Matt Biondi, Gary Hall Jr. and Jenny Thompson took part in the “Fitter & Faster Tour” on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, giving lessons in the pool and sharing their Olympic experiences.
Thompson, who is pregnant with her first child, chuckled when one of the youngsters noted that she had much shorter hair when she won a relay gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“Yeah, I was a lot different then,” Thompson said. “I had short hair, I was in shape and I was not pregnant.”
Hall urged the kids to remember the little things as they go after big goals.
“Every swimmer who ever represented the United States at the Olympics did it by swimming one lap at a time,” the three-time Olympian said. “Attention to detail and doing the small things right is what makes the difference.”
During a break, Hall said he enjoys staying involved in a sport that meant so much to his family. His father was also an Olympian.
“I’m excited about swimming,” Hall said. “It’s easy to talk about it. It doesn’t feel like work being here.”
The 46-year-old Biondi donned a skimpy suit and jumped right in the water to work with the children.
Asked if he plans a comeback, Biondi smiled and quipped, “Maybe a comeback to the snack stand.”
WELL-WORN KICKBOARD: It was a moment that symbolized the bridging of two eras of swimming. Olympic great Natalie Coughlin, 29, and new American star Missy Franklin, 17, were cooling down in the warmup pool when Franklin asked if she could borrow Coughlin’s kickboard.
The two shared a laugh as Coughlin passed the torch, er, kickboard, to Franklin.
“She has had her kickboard longer than I have been swimming,” Franklin said.