Amid the 33 medals American swimmers won at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics last week was the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay team’s silver captured on the opening night of competition.
It was USA Swimming’s third medal in Rio and it capped a night that also included silvers in the men’s (Chase Kalisz) and women’s (Maya DiRado) 400-meter IM races.
Brooklyn native Lia Neal played a crucial role in the Americans’ effort to earn silver in that relay.
On Aug. 6, less than 18 hours after the Rio Games were officially opened at Maracanã Stadium, Neal swam in the preliminary round of the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay. The American squad was in the second of two heats and was comprised of Amanda Weir, Neal, Allison Schmitt, and Katie Ledecky.
With Neal’s assistance, the fast foursome touched the wall second in its heat and entered the finals with the second fastest prelim time, giving them one of the two middle lanes in that evening’s final.
“Obviously it’s always an honor to represent Team USA, and I feel like the message of having an entire country behind us, having so many people support us — more people than we know — has really been drilled into our heads,” Neal said during a USA Swimming interview last week. “That really makes me more appreciative of this opportunity.”
After Weir gave the Americans a half-second lead following the opening leg in the prelims, Neal swam her lap in 53.63 seconds and left Schmitt with a slight advantage heading into the second half of the race. The Australians proved too strong and were the fastest to the wall, 3:32.39 to 3:33.59.
In the final later that night that, Australia nipped the Americans (Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Dana Vollmer, and Abbey Weitzeil) for gold with an impressive world-record swim of 3:30.65.
For Neal, however, earning a silver medal was a step up from the bronze medal she took home from London four years ago in the same event.
“I remember in London, I was more excited than nervous to swim,” Neal said. “This time when I was standing behind the blocks, I said, ‘I’m a little nervous.’ But also just as excited to swim as I was in London.”
The U.S. swimming team dominated the opening week of the Olympics in Rio, taking nearly two dozen more medals than Australia, the second-placed team in the medal tally with 10. Included in the Americans’ haul were 16 golds, eight silvers, and nine bronzes.
Connor Jaeger, another U.S. swimmer from the New York City area, also had a strong meet for the Americans. Hailing from Fair Haven N.J. on the northern reaches of the shore, Jaeger opened his meet on the first day of competition with a fifth-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle and closed it on Saturday, the final day of pool swimming events, with a silver medal in the 1,500 meters — swimming’s version of the mile.
The opening-day relay was Neal’s only swim in Rio, so she spent the rest of the week in the stands cheering for her teammates — and subsequently losing her voice.
“It’s so fun to be on the other side of it,” she said.