The 2012 Ultra Swim in Charlotte, North Carolina on May 13, was a first look at which swimmers could make the United States Olympic Team. In the women’s 100 meter freestyle, all eyes were on Natalie Coughlin, an 11-time Olympic medalist. Natalie, however, finished third. The winner was Lia Neal, a 17 year-old student at the Convent of the Sacred Heart who swims on the Asphalt Green team. Lia will be one of five swimmers from Asphalt Green, the Agua Athletes, who will be heading to Omaha, Nebraska for the Olympic trials from June 23 through July 3. (Photo above, from left to right: Griffin Schumacher, En-Wei Hu-Van Wright, Coach Rachel Stratton-Mills, Michael Domagala, Isla Hutchinson-Maddox, and Lia Neal).
“Lia’s been doing very, very well the last few months,” said her Asphalt Green Coach Rachel Stratton-Mills. “We’re very excited going into [Olympic trials]. She is one of the athletes who has a good shot of making the Olympic team. Of course, it’s never something that you know until you get there. A meet just like any other meet, anything can happen. However, where she is ranked and her times put her in a very, very good spot in a few events to be able to make the team. So that’s definitely very exciting for her and for all of us.” Lia will be swimming in the 50, 100, and 200 meter freestyle events that will be spread out over a number of days.
Four other Asphalt Green swimmers will be going to Olympic trials. Isla Hutchinson-Maddox, another student from the Convent of the Sacred Heart, has qualified in the 200 meter butterfly and hopes to qualify in the 800 meter freestyle. En-Wei Hu-Van Wright, who will attend Princeton in the fall, will swim the 200 meter backstroke. Michael Domagala,who just turned 16, will be swimming in several events. Rachel said that Michael is “an extremely talented young man,” who at age 14 broke a national age group record in the 100 meter butterfly. Griffin Schumacher, who just finished his freshman year at Harvard, will also swim with the team.
A few older swimmers who swim for their colleges will train with the Asphalt Green team leading up to Olympic trials.
While the Summer Olympic Games come every four years, the athletes who train do so for many years, year round. Asphalt Green’s program boasts more than 250 athletes beginning at age seven to age 19. Some of the swimmers begin in Asphalt Green’s swim school or through the water-proofing program for urban students. Others were on swim teams at their schools or in different areas in the metropolitan area and transferred because of Asphalt Green’s reputation.
“It’s definitely a highly competitive focus,” said Rachel. “These athletes, especially the high school ones, are here before school, after school, on weekends, and during holidays. They are very hard working.”
The swimmers have around four years to qualify for the Olympic trials. “The athletes go to meets through all of those years trying to make a certain time standard,” explained Rachel. Once a swimmer makes that time, he or she may compete in that event at trials. Some swimmers go to the trials only swimming in one event, while others will swim in several.
While Rachel said it is more difficult to be competing in multiple events, the Olympic trials are spread out over a number of days. “All of these athletes will be rested for this meet,” she said. “But they will be in the water a lot, fine tuning their starts, turns, and getting used to a different pool.”
Rachel said that the Olympic trial in Omaha will be a “massive event,” attracting close to 2,000 swimmers. “Obviously there’s an Olympic team being selected, but the majority of the athletes there are not trying to make the Olympic team,” she said. “You have a good idea based on your ranking, your current time, who might be making a team.”
While Lia remains Asphalt Green’s best shot for an Olympic slot, the other Asphalt Green swimmers will hope to make the National Youth Team that will travel to Hawaii this summer. “So that makes it really fun, that we’re taking everyone to trial and they are actually trying to qualify for something,” she said. “It helps keep up the excitement of the whole group because everybody in our group is fast enough that they have a chance; they are either attempting to make the Olympic team or they are trying for the other team. It helps to keep everyone focused.”
Lia currently ranks fifth in the 200 meter Women’s Freestyle and sixth in the 100 meter Women’s Freestyle in the country. The United States takes six athletes to the Olympics for those events in order to have enough swimmers to compete in the relays. “For Lia to be ranked fifth and sixth puts her in a really good position,” said Rachel. What’s more important, she added, is the confidence Lia gained after finishing first in the 100 meter freestyle at the Charlotte Ultra Swim. “That was a really big swim for her,” said Rachel. “This close to Olympic trials, to have that race is the perfect timing and such a big confidence booster for her. She’s always been a very talented swimmer, but she’s still very young and she didn’t always see herself in the position to beat someone like Natalie Coughlin, an 11 time Olympic medalist and multi year participant on national teams along with Jessica Hardy.” (Hardy, who finished second in the event made the 2008 Olympic team, but left voluntarily after failing a drug test).
Lia’s attitude towards training and competing also work to her advantage. “The beautiful thing about Lia is that she does not get extremely nervous or worked up about competition, and that’s something that makes her great,” said Rachel. “She knows it’s coming; she can talk about it. She’s focused at practice and needing to work hard these last few weeks. But she does have a calm about her when she goes to competition that will help her when she’s at Olympic trials and everybody is very, very nervous and worked up. She should be ready to go at trials; she’ll do great.”
Although the focus is now on the London Olympics, Rachel noted that Lia is young enough that she could compete again in four years. “I think that helps as well,” said Rachel.
As coach, Rachel said she tries to keep her swimmers focused on their goals. “When you’re at this level, you definitely have to have an internal passion for what you do,” she said. “We have our hard days; all the athletes do. These are the type of athletes that are very intrinsically motivated and respond well.”
Besides excelling in the pool, the Asphalt Green swimmers excel in the classroom. “We have very successful kids academically,” said Rachel. “We are graduating 13 this year and of those 13, we have swimmers going to MIT, Princeton, Cornell, Amherst. It’s a great academic class.” Having the structure actually helps these students to succeed. “They are very focused because they have to be.”
Rachel (above) swam in college at UCLA and coached in Southern California before coming to Asphalt Green. Through her personal connections, she brings Olympic swimmers like Janet Evans to come to Asphalt Green to work out with her team. “That is a lot of fun for the team,” she said. “And it’s this idea of seeing how much these professional athletes still love the sport. That’s what we want to be teaching these athletes, that you can be a high level athlete, work very hard, but you can still love the sport at the same time. It doesn’t have to be drudgery, a miserable, exhausting part of your life. It can be hard work, it can be taxing, and you can still love it.”
At Asphalt Green, the focus is always on bringing in the next generation of swimmers, the Lia Neals of tomorrow. “We’re lucky that we have such phenomenal swimmers up ahead of them so they can sit there and say,`I know at this age what is possible and that’s what I want to aim for.’ And it helps bring the entire program up and keeps it at a level over a long time.”
Rachel herself keeps a hectic schedule, at practice seven days a week, beginning at 5:30 a.m. “I absolutely love what I do,” she said. “I think if you love what you do and you know you’re making an impact on many young lives and helping them become successful people for the future, that brings its own energy.”
For more information on Asphalt Green and its swim programs, go to the website.