The Key to Keeping Your Cool | Meet Olympic Swimmer Lia Neal

After making her Olympic debut in swimming back in 2012, Lia Neal proved to be an eminent competitor and even won a silver medal while competing again in Rio last year. It's no surprise that it takes intense physical training to become a professional athlete--not to mention, an Olympian. But the 22-year-old lets us know that maintaining a healthy mentality and positive attitude are just as important. To learn about Lia's tips for balancing physical and mental health, as well as what it's like to compete in the Olympics at such a young age, read our interview with her below!

Tell us a little bit about how you got started in swimming.
I started swimming when I was six in the first grade because my classmates were taking classes at this place in the lower east side of Manhattan. I was kind of ambivalent towards it at first. I took lessons for two years, stuck with it, and went through all of the different levels. By the time I was eight, I already reached the last level so the only thing left to do was to join a swim team and start swimming competitively.

What’s your favorite and least favorite part about swimming?
My least favorite part is morning practices. It’s just the worst, haha. It sucks having to wake up early in the morning, especially in the winter time. In college, we’ll have morning practices and it’s freezing and pitch black, but you’ll still have to bike to the pool.

My favorite part is being able to meet everyone I’ve met. Swimming has allowed me to form some really strong bonds and friendships. I've also loved to go to all of the places that swimming has allowed me to travel to. I've been to a lot of places that I probably wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

Favorite place you’ve gone?
I really like London and want to go back again. I was out there for only the swim portion of the Olympics and got to see the city for a couple of days; it was really cool. As I get older, I try to take more advantage of the places that I go to. In the past, I’ve gone to a lot of places and all I see is the pool and the hotel.

What advice do you have for others who want to become professional athletes?
Do it for the love of the sport and always remember why you stuck with it. Focus on what makes you happy because once things like money become the focus, it takes away from the passion and fun of what you’re doing. Don’t forget about how you got to the point where you’re at.

"I take things one step at a time... if I do start psyching myself out, then I just try to remember that everyone else is going through the same thing too."

How do you stay in top shape during the off-season? Any special fitness or health routines?
I’m actually [on off-season] right now. I’ve been spinning a lot. I like going to classes but I also like just spinning on my own at the gym because you can save money that way. As long as you have good music to spin to, it's great! I’ve been walking around a lot too; I try to take the train as little as possible. The weather’s been really nice so walking around has been really good for exercise, and it’s just entertaining in that you get to observe everything around you. I also do a little bit of lifting as well so that it doesn’t take me as long to get back into top lifting shape.

Who are some of your go-to artists to listen to while working out?
Anything, really. It varies but as long as it has a good beat. Recently, I’ve been listening to Dua Lipa--her album is really good to spin to. Phantogram is more chill but they have beats that work really well with spinning because they flow so well with the movement.

Most difficult part about being an Olympian?
Mentally, you have to stay in the game and remain motivated. Especially during the four years leading up to the Olympics and during trials. You can’t just wait to turn it on right before your events because swimming is one of those sports where you get out of shape really easily. Not only is it hard long term but also short term. Like when you're stepping up to the blocks leading up to your race. You can do all of the preparation and have been really diligent with your training and nutrition, but if you enter a meet and psych yourself out, then all of that is for nothing.

How do you overcome these challenges?
I still try to keep a positive mindset. I take things one step at a time and if I do start psyching myself out, then I just try to remember that everyone else is going through the same thing too.

Hidden gems in NY?
Great Noodle New York in Chinatown is great for Chinese food and Il Porto Pizza has the best pizza I’ve ever had.

Who’s your MISSBISH?
I’m inspired by little things from a bunch of different people but the first to come to mind is my mom. I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older just how much she does and sacrifices to make sure that her kids have the best life possible.

Photos by: Marielle Sales

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