Monday, August 27, 2012
Rome Neal walked up to the microphone last week at the Paris Blues in Harlem and was just about to sing “I Worry About You” when he decided to share some great news with his audience. In his 12 years of performing a one-man show about Thelonious Monk, Neal had come to appreciate the importance of exquisite timing.
“My daughter’s name is Lia Neal and she just made it to become an Olympic swimmer, and she’ll be swimming in the Olympics in 2012 in London, England, the 4x100 relay,” Neal said.
The audience applauded and cheered enthusiastically. “Lia is 17 years old,” he said, “the second African-American female swimmer to make it to the Olympics.”
More applause, and for a story Rome Neal could finally tell.
Lia Neal qualified for the Olympics earlier this month by finishing fourth in the 100-meter freestyle, putting her on the relay team. In the weeks and months leading to the Olympic swimming trials, her mother, Siu Neal, had admonished her husband of 38 years not to put the cart before the horse, to rein in his flair for the dramatic and generally be cool.
Now Rome was free to spread the word and the joy: his baby girl was an Olympian.
“In the beginning, my wife was saying: ‘Keep it down, keep it down, we don’t want to jinx this thing. Don’t be talking so much about it to people,’ ” he said. “Now I can talk because the whole world is talking.”
A few days before the trials in Omaha, Rome recalled how he had spent the day in New York with Lia. They had gone to the health spa where, as a 5-year-old, she had exhibited the first inkling of interest in swimming. He put her on his back and floated along the surface.
“She couldn’t swim at the time,” Rome Neal said. “She’d be on my back in the water and she would be trying to swim, and I couldn’t swim that well, but the water’s not that deep so I’m making her look like she’s swimming on top of my back.”
For Rome, that moment seems even sweeter today given his daughter’s remarkable journey. One of the issues Lia Neal’s success raises is how the United States in 2012 continues to celebrate access and opportunity in the way of firsts. Sports reflect a larger quandary in the land of opportunity, that so many sports have been resistant to inclusion for all races. The United States swimming team will have three African-Americans in London; the country’s gymnastics team will carry two.
The common explanation is that so-called country club sports are often too expensive given the costs of training, private lessons and travel. But with increasing numbers of African-Americans enjoying great prosperity — even as the gap between rich and poor widens — money can be only a partial explanation. There are other considerations like a lack of familiarity, an absence of tradition and a short history of success.
There were no deep roots for Lia Neal to grab onto. At 17, she is one of the roots and a likely source of inspiration for a younger generation. “This young lady is going to touch someone who’s going to be reaching for that higher goal also because of what Lia is doing right now in the water,” Rome Neal said. There are costs, certainly. But there are also organizations that provide grants and scholarships for swimmers who display talent and commitment. For example, Lia received a scholarship from Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics, a Manhattan nonprofit whose mission is to help people achieve health through sports and fitness, and her school, Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan, also contributed money to help defray the costs of training.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive,” Rome Neal said. “If you have raw talent, you can exceed so many barriers. But the sport itself, it can be costly.”
Perhaps even more important than money is an unwavering commitment — of time, resources and an attitude that all things are possible. Lia Neal and her family, especially her mother, had a ferocious commitment to possibility.
Getting up at 5 in the morning. Driving from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Practicing for two hours. Going to school. Working out again for two hours after school. Traveling to meets around the country. Saving vacation time for those meets.
“There was a lot of time, a lot of hard work, a lot of determination, for the child,” Siu Neal said in a recent interview. “She gave up a lot of the privileges other young people have. All of her time was either practicing swimming or dry land training or going to school. When she came home, she had homework to do. It seems like she always had to race against time to get everything done.”
But the commitment is not just by the athlete.
“Any parent would do what I do,” Siu Neal said. “They all spend lots of time with their kids, take them to swimming practice, bringing them to competitions and meets. I don’t consider it giving up anything. I enjoy watching her swim; I even loved to watch her practice.”
Siu and Rome Neal are each 59, and their relationship reflects a deep-seated belief in possibility. They were brought together by poignant variations of the American dream. Their journeys to New York — and each other — underline the complexities and contradictions of a nation conceived in liberty. Their daughter symbolizes the powerful, positive force of that union.
When he was a year old, in 1953, Rome (his given name, Jerome, was shortened by his mother) moved to New York City from Sumter, S.C., as his family sought relief from the suffocating racial oppression in the South.
Siu and her family immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 18 to join her grandfather. “We were looking for a better life,” she said.
Rome’s family settled in Harlem before moving to Brooklyn. Siu’s family initially moved to the Bronx before also heading to Brooklyn. They met at New York City Community College, married and had three sons: Rome Kyn, Smile and Treasure.
On Feb. 13, 1995, the Neals had the daughter they had long hoped for. Rome wanted to name her Kujichagulia in honor of the second principle of Kwanzaa, self-determination. He was voted down. They settled on Lia. She speaks fluent Cantonese and Mandarin.
Rome Neal became an example of pursuing a passion, even if his came later in life. He was not a jazzman before 2000. When he came out of college, he wanted to be a retail clothes designer but went into theater.
Then he was exposed to the music and life of Thelonious Monk when a playwright suggested that he do a one-man show on the life of the jazz pianist composer. Rome said the experience transformed his life.
“I never thought I would be a jazz musician,” he said. “Singing jazz was the farthest thing from my mind.”
In Lia Neal’s case, the larger story is that of a young person having a great dream and, with the help of a village, making it a reality. This is also a story of evolution. Siu was not a big believer in sports and did not think they were important. Her daughter changed her perspective. Now she is an advocate for sports.
“Everybody has to be good at something,” she said. “You let them try different sports, then find out what they like and then they can pursue that like, not necessarily to be a big success, but something to carry with them for a lifetime.”
The Neals’ daughter had the loftiest ambition of all. She wanted to be an Olympian.
Lia Neal, and her ambition to be an elite athlete, embodies a specific quality of the American dream, one that requires opportunity and demands unwavering commitment in the pursuit of great success.