Brooklynite Lia Neal, 17, has made the 2012 Olympic team and will compete in the 400-meter free relay in London. Neal, a rising senior at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan, is only the second African-American female swimmer to make an Olympic team. There’s also a ground-breaker behind Neal, her Asphalt Green coach, Rachel Stratton-Mills, one of only three female coaches who placed a swimmer on the 2012 Olympic swim team. “For me, that’s something that I’m very proud of,” Rachel said. “I want younger coaches to be able to say, `hey, if she can do it, I can do it.’ At the same time, it’s important for someone like Lia to be able to have that same influence on young girls.”
Although Rachel has been to Olympic trials as a coach twice before, the competition in Omaha was different. “This is the first time that I had been to trials with an athlete that was a contender to make the team,” she said. “Obviously all the athletes there are tremendous athletes to even qualify for Olympic trials,” but only a handful were seeded in a place that they were thinking of making the team. “So that changes everything.” More than 2,000 swimmers competed in Omaha. Rachel accompanied a team from Asphalt Green, the Agua swimmers, that included, besides Lia, on right, above, from left, Griffin Schumacher, En-Wei Hu-Van Wright, Michael Domagala, and Isla Hutchinson-Maddox. (See our previous story).
Rachel said the mood of the Agua athletes was “phenomenal,” throughout the trip and the trials. “I couldn’t be more proud of a group of young adults,” she said. “They get along so well. They were so happy to be there, to be part of the competition and to be with their teammates. They were obviously extremely excited. It’s a swim meet like no other.”
The trials were held in Omaha’s CenturyLink Center where a basketball arena was transformed into two Olympic-size pools. Rachel said that the Agua swimmers seemed more taken with the facility than seeing some of the famous swimmers.“The athletes we have go to meets throughout the year,” she said, and often see Olympians like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. “Our swimmers were more in awe of the environment because they had never seen a venue such as this,” she said.
Rachel described the emotional atmosphere during the trials as “extremely exciting,” yet “incredibly nerve-wracking.” She added: “It was very stress-filled, but good stress. It’s a good problem to have that pressure at a meet, to have athletes at that level.”
The trials were spread out over many days, with preliminary swims followed by semifinals, then the final swim. “There is not a moment to sit back and just enjoy it because you have to move on to the next swim,” she said. Rachel said that Lia’s first preliminary swim for the 200 meter freestyle was “rough,” and she didn’t qualify for semifinals. “But Lia bounced back,” she said. “What Lia did well, what we all did well as a group, was to shake it off. That was what I tried to tell the kids. It’s all right; it’s one race you move on. And they saw so many people around them who had a rough first race and then they just did a great job on another race or, the opposite. We saw some athletes who were in finals for certain events and the next day they had a rough race. A lot of good learning lessons for young athletes, including Lia.”
The trials turned out to be a family affair. “We had not only the parents of our athletes but also we had a group of about 10 families from our team that came just to watch,” Rachel said. “They have younger kids on the team and they came to support the athletes in the Olympic trials.” The group’s cheers were so loud that even the announcer spotlighted the Asphalt Green fans. “It was really special to have that much support,” Rachel said. Also present were administrators from the Convent of the Sacred Heart where both Lia and Isla Hutchinson-Maddox are students.
When Lia learned she had made the team, finishing fourth in the 100 meter, “she was completely in tears; she was in shock,” said Rachel. The relay team includes fifth and sixth swimmers as alternates, but because Lia finished fourth, she was able to take part in the awards ceremonies. And, as her coach, Rachel did, too. “I was with the other coaches of the top four athletes,” she said. (Photo of the 400 meter relay team, above, from left, Lia, Allison Schmitt, Missy Franklin, and Jessica Hardy).
After a few days back home in New York, Lia will leave for Tennessee where she will train with the other Olympic swimmers. Rachel will be there, too, working with Lia. “The home coaches can come to Tennessee for the time the swimmers are there so that’s exciting,” Rachel said. She will also travel to London to watch Lia swim and enjoy a belated honeymoon with her husband of one year, Glenn Mills, a member of the 1980 Olympic swim team, and now is a video producer whose website, Go Swim, specializes in swimming technique.
While the media focuses on Lia’s ground-breaking role as only the second African-American female swimmer to make an Olympic team, Rachel noted that diversity is a hallmark of the Asphalt Green program. “A lot of people in our sport are not from such incredibly diverse areas; we are the true melting pot here in New York City,” she said. “What I don’t think [others] get is that our team is so diverse that the kids don’t really even notice it. It doesn’t feel different [to Lia] because she’s not any different than all of the other backgrounds of these cultures that we have here on the team. People are looking [to her] for answers, but she isn’t really able to articulate a lot of it because it’s just not an issue that crosses her mind.” Still, Rachel knows that Lia’s position is important, that she is in a position to inspire others.
For her part, Rachel welcomes the role of groundbreaker. “Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with people not giving me the same respect as other coaches,” she said. “People assuming that you couldn’t be the head coach. I’ve had people ask me where my head coach is when I’ve tried to deal with an issue with an official. And also over the years some parents will say, `you’re just a young girl; you can’t be doing what you’re talking about.’” Adding to Rachel’s excitement is that Teri McKeever, the head coach for the female Olympic swim team, is the first woman to have that position. “So it’s definitely a sense of pride,” Rachel said.
Rachel was born and raised in Los Gatos, California. She does not come from a swim family and got a late start in the sport. “I spent summers at the country club where there was a swim team,” she said. “I used to make fun of them while my brother and I were playing in the pool. Why would you want to swim back and forth and have a coach yell at you?” Becoming a swimmer and then a swim coach was unexpected. At Los Gatos High School, Rachel was given the choice of PE or joining the water polo team. She chose water polo then, to improve her swimming, joined the club team. “I gravitated towards swimming because of the structure, because of the opportunities to work hard morning and afternoon,” she said. “I really enjoyed that.”
After swimming at UCLA, Rachel began coaching in Los Angeles. An offer to coach at Dartmouth brought her to the East Coast and she also coached at the University of Maryland and the Naval Academy at Annapolis. What are the qualities of a good swim coach? “You have to be passionate about what you do, especially working with high school age kids, you have to be very patient and understanding,” she said. “I absolutely love what I do and I’m so patient and I’m so passionate about getting these athletes to the highest level possible, but at the same time understanding that this is just one step in their lives. I want to be a positive influence to teach them life lessons on their way to being great people.”
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Cavatapo Grill. The site of our pre-wedding reception.
Favorite Place to Shop: Athleta. Cute clothes which are also perfect for an active coach.
Favorite New York Sight: View from our apartment which spreads from Columbia University to Yankee Stadium to the East River. Beautiful at night!
Favorite New York Moment: Central Park before 9 a.m. with my dog off leash.
What You Love About New York: The friendliness of people in our neighborhood.
What You Hate About New York: The smells