Lia Neal Realizes Vision At Stanford Set In Motion Over Four Years Ago

Justin Casterline Lia Neal NCAA.jpg

​Lia Neal​ just completed her last meet as a member of the Stanford team at the 2017 NCAA Division I Women's Swimming and Diving Championships on Saturday. But perhaps "complete" doesn't do justice to the Cardinal senior's four-day run in Indianapolis. 

Neal was on four of Stanford's five relays -- including three that claimed NCAA titles (800 freestyle relay, 400 freestyle relay, and 400 medley relay), two that obliterated NCAA records (800 freestyle relay and 400 freestyle relay), and one that broke an American record as well (200 freestyle relay). Behind the leadership of Neal, the Stanford women won their first NCAA championship since 1998 with 526.5 points, 160.5 points ahead of second-place California.

But Neal's impact on this Stanford team goes well beyond her performances in the pool this past week at IUPUI Natatorium. Before we get to that, let's take a look back on the timeline of events that led up to her arrival on The Farm:

June 30, 2012 -- Neal​, going into her senior year of high school at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York, ​qualifies for the 2012 United States Olympic team by placing fourth in the 100m freestyle at Olympic Trials with a 54.33.

July 28, 2012 -- Neal​ earns a bronze medal as a member of the United States 4x100 freestyle relay team, splitting 53.65 on the third leg for the Americans.

August 27, 2012 -- Stanford announces that ​Greg Meehan​ has been hired as head coach of the women's swimming team, heading south of the San Francisco Bay from Cal-Berkeley, where he was associate head coach of a successful Cal men's program.​

October 11, 2012 -- ​Neal ​announces that she will be heading to The Farm and joining Meehan as one his first recruits and certainly the biggest.

Cardinal coach Greg Meehan:
She legitimized our program in that moment.
Fast forward to today. Neal was a program-changer for Meehan and Stanford -- there is no doubt about it. She was a mainstay on the Cardinal's relays all four years and three times placed second in the 100 freestyle at the NCAA Championships (her highest individual finish) in 2014, 2015, and 2016. She rode that success into the summer of 2016 when she again qualified for the United States Olympic team in the 100m freestyle by placing fourth with a time of 53.77. This time around, Neal earned a silver medal in Rio as a part of the 4x100 freestyle relay team.

Beyond the points and the times on the scoreboard, Neal was the one who started the momentum that led to Stanford's national championship.

"She (Neal) set this thing in motion five years ago when she committed to our program as an Olympian out of high school for an unproven head coach," Meehan said in a post-meet interview.

"When she made that decision to come to Stanford, she made it OK for the [Simone Manuels], and the [Ally Howes], and the [Janet Hus], and the [Katie Ledeckys], and the [Katie Drabots], and the other Allie, (Szekely). Everything just rolled from there," Meehan added with a smile. "I laugh, but that is the reality -- she legitimized our program in that moment."

The praise did not stop there for Neal. Three of her teammates, ​Ella Eastin​, Ledecky​, and Manuel​,​ chimed in as well.​

​"Lia means a lot to me, and she is everything to this program," said an emotional Eastin with tears welling up in her eyes. "She is a lot of the reason why a lot of us are here. When she made the decision to come here, Greg's first recruiting class, and took the chance…built this from the ground up with him."

Eastin finished her sentiments toward Neal by saying, "I'll never be able to thank her enough and she is a really good mentor to me and someone that I really look up to and someone that all of us are really proud to have been on a team with her."

Even a superstar such as Ledecky, a freshman at Stanford, expressed her utmost respect for the senior leader. 

"(Going into the 400 freestyle relay) I knew I was just going to fight and do it for Lia," Ledecky said. "Every stroke I was saying, 'For Lia, for Lia.'

"I roomed with her on the training trips going into London when she was going into her senior year of high school, so she hadn't even committed to Stanford yet. But when she did, a lot of people started looking at Stanford. I know I certainly did."

But possibly the strongest words came from Manuel, Neal's good friend and training partner.

As she sat next to Neal in the post-meet interview and wiped away tears, Manuel said, "I wanted to do well in the 400 freestyle relay for Lia. ... Greg talked to me about finishing off the meet well for her, setting up that first relay leg. I started crying at the 75 mark (of her swim).

"We are great friends and we spend a lot of time with each other and I have a genuine love for Lia. I am sure we will reminisce on this for a long time."​

Neal's collegiate career at Stanford may have come to a close on Saturday, but it is evident that the impact she made on this program will be long-lasting. As Meehan mentioned, she set everything in motion when she committed to the Cardinal almost five years ago. Today, thanks to Neal's initiative, Stanford can call itself national champion and have confidence that this journey has just begun.

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