Being a native New Yorker and African American meant that 17-year-old Lia Neal had two more chips stacked against her than the other young swimmers competing in Saturday's 100-meter freestyle finals in Omaha, Neb.
In New York City, frequent trips to a pool are not the norm. And some 70 percent of African-American children do not know how to swim.
Neal, however, managed to take fourth place in the Olympic trial, becoming the second African-American woman to make a U.S. Olympic swim team, the Washington Post reports.
Neal's win represented not only a personal victory, but a step toward diversifying the team of American swimmers heading to London later this month.
In the men's competition, swimmer Anthony Ervin, whose father is of African-American and American-Indian descent, came in one-hundredth of a second behind gold medalist Cullen Jones, joining Neal as the third African-American swimmer on the 2012 U.S. team.
According to The New York Times, the U.S. swim team has never had more than one team member of African-American descent and Ervin became the first ever in 2000.
“It’s a pretty big title,” Neal told the Washington Post. She said she knew about her predecessor Maritza Correia, a silver medalist in the 4x100 freestyle relay in 2004, going into Saturday's race, but never thought she'd be the second black female swimmer to make the team.
And though Neal says that swimming is becoming increasingly popular in New York City, where she started swimming at the age of six, her teammate Jones acknowledged that there's more work to be done to get African-American children to swim.
Jones has been touring the country as the face of USA Swimming's "Make a Splash" program, which promotes teaching kids from diverse backgrounds to swim. In May, he spoke to a group of youths about his rise to the top of the U.S. Olympic swim team, which, he says, started with him nearly drowning at an amusement park at the age of six. The speech was filmed by USA Today:
"I always hear so many stories from different people, even in my own family, where they've had such bad experiences with being in the water and swimming that I can really relate. I can sit back and go: 'This is what happened to me. I completely get it. But that's never a reason for you not to learn how to swim.' You see a lot of that, especially in the African-American community."
Swimming isn't the only Olympic category where African Americans are making strides. On Saturday, African-American gymnast Gabrielle Douglas earned a guaranteed Olympic women's gymnastics spot by winning the trials over reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber before a sold-out crowd in San Jose, Calif., the Los Angeles Times reports.
Take one look at Aly Raisman's floor routine -- a breathless 90 seconds of powerful aerial flips and twists peppered with graceful dance elements -- and you'll see why she's ready to be an Olympic contender. The routine earned her second place at the 2012 American Cup this past weekend. If she performs as well at the Olympic Trials in late June, she'll take a spot on the women's U.S. gymnastics team. "I'm excited. I'm anxious. And I'm just kind of ready for it to happen. I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for it," <a href="http://www.npr.org/2012/05/16/152752207/gymnasts-journey-toddler-tumbler-to-golden-girl" target="_hplink">she told NPR</a>.
Gymnast Jordyn Wieber took home gold at the World Championships in Tokyo last year at just 16. The Olympics are well within her reach. But refreshingly enough, Jordyn still has a normal life -- well, as normal as an Olympic hopeful's can be. "I like having a separate group of friends to go to the movies with and get my mind off gymnastics. I like being a normal student," <a href="http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=wieberfever" target="_hplink">she told ESPN</a>.
Lee Kiefer's fencing career began in her dining room with lessons from her dad. The lessons paid off: At 17, she qualified to join the American foil team in London this summer. But she hasn't let her success go to her head. "Of course, I want to get a medal this year, and I know I can put up a fight. But I don't want to set myself up to be disappointed. [By 2016], I hope to be at my best. I know I haven't reached that point yet," <a href="http://espn.go.com/high-school/girl/story/_/id/7872314/lee-kiefer-represent-us-fencing-london-olympics" target="_hplink">she told ESPN</a>.
This is the first Olympic Games in which women will be able to compete for boxing medals, and it appears that 17-year-old Claressa Shields could very well earn the first. Currently, she's ranked first in the nation in her weight class and recently qualified for the Olympics. Shields feels her best when she's in the ring. "Sometimes, it's like all your problems go away," <a href="http://espn.go.com/high-school/girl/story/_/id/7899778/claressa-shields-hopes-make-us-women-boxing-team" target="_hplink">she told ESPN</a>. "It's just time to take care of business once you get in there. I like that. Once you get in there, you've got to go the extra mile."
Touted as the next Michael Phelps <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/sports/olympic-hopeful-missy-franklin-loves-her-high-school-team.html?pagewanted=all" target="_hplink">by the <em>New York Times</em></a>, 17-year-old Missy Franklin will be a favorite to make the U.S. women's swimming team at the Olympic Trials in June. Last summer, she came home from the world championships in Shanghai with five medals. "A lot of people think of swimming as an individual sport, but I've always loved the team aspect," Franklin, who still competes for her high school, told the <em>New York Times</em>.