Lia Neal was eight years-old when she was awarded a Swim for the Future scholarship, making it possible for her to join Asphalt Green’s competitive AGUA Swim Team. Now 17 years-old, Lia will be returning to New York City after winning a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. (Photo above, from left: Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal, and Allison Schmidt).
The Swim for the Future scholarships were established in 2001 in honor of two Asphalt Green Masters swimmers, Andrew Fisher (left) and Doug Irgang (below, right), who died on September 11, 2001. Members of the Fisher and Irgang families, instrumental in launching the scholarship program, were elated with Lia’s victory. “[I was] speechless, just so excited,” said Nina Fisher. “I really just felt that my brother, Andrew, was there in spirit.” Steven Irgang said that his brother, Doug, would be very proud. “I want to give Lia a big hug,” he said. “I’m just so proud of her.”
Asphalt Green’s Swim for the Future was conceived within a week or so of the World Trade Center disaster. “A group of us on the Masters team [who swam with Andrew and Doug] got together with the families and we planned a swimathon which was held in November of 2001,” said Patricia Saunders, who is also an Asphalt Green Board Member. “The first year we raised about $150,000 and since then we have raised at least $50,000 each year.”
Around 170 scholarships have been awarded since 2001, 27 last year, making it possible for the recipients to train at Asphalt Green and compete at the Junior Olympics, Olympic Trials, and international competitions. Besides Lia, two other scholarship recipients, En-Wei Hu-Van Wright and Michael Domagala, traveled to Omaha for Olympic trials. (See our previous story).
From the beginning, aspirations for the program were high. Nina Fisher recalled that after the first fundraiser, the committee began to think about having a swimmer reach the Olympics. “[We thought] wouldn’t it be nice to have an Olympic swimmer come from New York City, from an ethnically diverse group,” she said. “Who knew where it came from? We just had this vision of a swimmer coming from our team.”
While John Fisher had the same hopes, he was more realistic.”These opportunities in terms of developing a young swimmer who will a, make it into the Olympics and b, win a medal, it’s really quite rare,” he said. As Lia’s record times improved, however, “it was clear that she was something special.”
To qualify for a scholarship, each applicant must fill out an application, write an essay, undergo a review by the AGUA coaches, and be interviewed by the committee whose members are John Fisher, Steven Irgang, Patricia Saunders, and Scott Bieker, a good friend and lane mate of Andrew’s. For first time applicants, one or both parents are also interviewed. The parents, John Fisher said, “make an extraordinary commitment, not only to the team but also go through a lot of hardship coming to practices.”
The Fisher and Irgang families and Swim for the Future committee members remain closely involved with the swimmers and their families. “We have our fundraiser, a community event, and all the families are there,” said Nina. “I know my mother takes time to speak to all of the parents. They are so grateful and thrilled. They talk about how well [their children] do in school, the improvement, and the things that this opportunity gives them that otherwise they might not have. This is the only scholarship of its kind in the United States.”
Besides allowing the young swimmers to compete, participation on the AGUA team often enhances college applications. “There are several students who never would have had that experience of going where they went to school, being able to compete as an athlete for a big ten team, for instance,” said John. “That opportunity that this scholarship has afforded them, at least for me, is very important.”
Helping young athletes through the Swim for the Future program has, in turn, helped both families with the healing process. “When my brother and his teammate were killed, we didn’t know what to do,” said Steven. “We needed to get distracted. We couldn’t sit around and be depressed.” Steven and Doug both swam on Tulane University’s swim team, although Steven said his brother was more competitive. “I tired of getting up at 4:30 to swim, but he never stopped. He pretty much joined Masters right away after he graduated. My brother loved the team.”
John said that because Andrew lived in Australia for a while and traveled a great deal for business, his family only learned after his death that he swam with the Masters team. “We discovered this tin full of awards and medals that he had received,” John said. “Then over the next few weeks that followed 9/11, we discovered that he had this passion for swimming.”
For both the Fisher and Irgang families, establishing a program to award swimming scholarships to deserving young people in New York was a fitting tribute. “I’m sure [Andrew] would feel terrific [about the Swim for the Future],” said John. “He had an affection for kids and he wanted to be a father. That never came to be, so I think that he would be overjoyed that something like this was set up in his name, something that would foster young people swimming and young people who were not of means to follow a passion for swimming because, like most competitive sports, it takes a lot of money.”
After more than 10 years, the scholarship program shows no signs of slowing down and Lia’s finish in the Olympics will only serve to create increased interest. “We’re so thrilled about [the publicity],” said Nina. “We feel that our commitment is to have this go on as long as there is a need and people will support it. We want this to go on forever.” Her brother John agreed that the program’s success “has exceeded all of our initial estimates of how long it would be in place.”
Right now, however, both families, who have watched Lia grow up in the pool at Asphalt Green, are focusing on her. “From eight years-old when she began, we saw talent, a little girl who could swim,” said Steven. Lia has inspired his two daughters, Demi, 9, and Devyn, 7, who want to be Olympians.
John Fisher wants Lia to savor her accomplishment. “She’s always been rather modest about her talents and her swimming skills, and probably like most teenagers rather embarrassed about having the limelight shined on [her],” said John. “I just want her to enjoy it.”
For more information on Asphalt Green and Swim for the Future, go to the Asphalt Green website.