Olympics 2012: NYC Athletes Challenge Racial Norms

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lia Neal at the Olympic Trials Lia Neal is competing, with the hopes of medaling, in the London games. (Mike Comer / ProSwim Visuals)

In the U.S., the Olympic sports of swimming and gymnastics are dominated by white athletes. But in London on Saturday, two New York City teenagers will challenge that notion. Lia Neal, 17, is a half-black half-Chinese athlete from Fort Greene, Brooklyn who will race in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle. And John Orozco, 19, a Puerto Rican from Harding Park in the Bronx will show what he’s got inside the gymnastics arena.

Making a Splash

Lia Neal is aggressive in the pool, but she’s the kind of person that would go unnoticed on a city subway. “If you were to meet her on the street, she’s the most unassuming young lady that you would ever meet,” said Brian Brown, her coach from age 9 to 15.

“And you really would not know about the competitiveness until you saw her race.  It’s a dichotomy.  It’s pretty interesting.”

Neal first learned to swim while taking classes with her Chinese mother at a Catholic school in Chinatown. Her father says it was clear early on she was good at it, and by the time she was 9 years old, she was racing competitively.

“Some of the meets I would see her like three body lengths behind,”  Rome Neal said. “And all of a sudden Lia comes up out of nowhere and just catches up with the girl and passes her to win.”

The 17-year-old Neal attends Convent of the Sacred Heart High School on a swimming scholarship. It’s the same school that Lady Gaga went to. She’s also part of an elite swim team at Asphalt Green on 91st Street in Manhattan, where  above the pool deck are a list of her records. One reads 22.6 seconds in the 50 yard freestyle. 

“There’s a lot of college age females who would love to go 22.6 by the end of their career and she did it at 14. It’s uh amazingly impressive,” said Rachel Stratton-Mills, Neal’s coach

Stratton-Mills is aware of Neal’s place in history as only the second female with African-American roots to make the U.S. Olympic Swim team. She said the young Olympian embraces being a role model for anyone who looks different from the norm. The coach acknowledged that as a black swimmer, Neal sticks out in other parts of the country but said not as much at Asphalt Green. 

“Racial diversity and cultural diversity here on this team as in most parts of New York City and all these schools these kids go to is normal,” Stratton-Mills said.

Bronx Drive and Determination Pays Off

Just like black athletes are rare to swimming, Latino athletes are rare to gymnastics, especially those from struggling Bronx neighborhoods. John Orozco grew up near the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. He attended the same Catholic grammar school that pop star Jennifer Lopez did. The 19 year old started gymnastics after his dad, a sanitation worker, found a flyer offering classes to underprivileged kids. The young boy excelled and at the age of 9 tried out for a competitive team in Chappaqua, New York.

“I still remember the first day he came in to try out,” said Jason Hebert of World Cup Gymnastics.  “It was so much raw talent and power. He had all the tools necessary to reach the highest levels of gymnastics.”

Orozco spent nearly nine years at the gym, and Hebert said World Cup would hold a viewing party to watch him compete.

But competitive gymnastics in Chappaqua is expensive — running about $450 a month, according to Hebert.

Orozco, who is disciplined and focused, received a scholarship to pay for his training but there were also competition fees and travel costs. Orozco is the youngest of five and the whole family helped with expenses by working at the gym.

Jessica Orozco, John’s 30-year-old sister, said she ran a pre-school program at World Cup while three of her brothers helped with gymnastics birthday parties and another worked as a handyman. “ It really was a family affair. That really was what it was all about,” she explained.

In the Bronx neighborhood they grew up in, she  said  kids hadn’t been exposed to gymnastics and didn’t always understand her brother’s commitment to the sport.  But she added they did  appreciate his acrobatics. “They would be like ‘Oh this guy flips, this little kid flips, he flips a lot you know watch, watch,’” she said, laughing as she remembered making them pay a dollar to watch her brother tumble.

The tight knit Puerto Rican family will all be in London to watch Orozco compete. Jessica Orozco said all the sacrifices now make sense.  “It’s just like, wow, I was a part of that. I was a part of supporting. I was part of…you know a family’s dream,” she explained.

Soon these young New Yorkers will get their chance to make their mark on the world stage in London and perhaps fulfill a dream of Olympic gold.

Mike Comer / ProSwim Visuals
Lia Neal at the Olympic Trials.
Courtesy of Asphalt Green
A young Lia Neal at Asphalt Green.
Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC
A banner of support for Neal as she competes in London.
Mike Comer / ProSwim Visuals
Lia Neal swimming at the Olympic trials.
John Cheng/USA Gymnastics
John Orozco performs his floor routine.
Courtesy of the Orozco Family
A young John celebrates his birthday with his mother.
Courtesy of the Orozco Family
John is the youngest of 5 siblings who worked at the gym to support his Olympic dreams.
Courtesy of Jason Hebert
John competing during his time at World Cup.


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Comments [8]


V and ken , you are the only racist pieces of excrement I see hear, sad a good story about Black people has to be marred by you white racist baboons.

Jan. 30 2014 10:07 PM

Ty is right whites make everything worse and "racial" I AM TIRED OF white THUGS , V and ken , whites are a discredit to there sorry race move one idiots.

Jan. 30 2014 10:03 PM

Dont worry Ty you racist piece of crap. Your track and field starts tommorow. People like you make this world a shitty place to live in. Douche....

Aug. 02 2012 05:46 PM

Ty's from Oakland. What a shocker! I Guess i get tired of seeing a bunch of black thugs on the basketball court as much as you hate white swimmers, Tyrone.

Jul. 30 2012 04:56 PM
Ty from Oakland

Hopefully this trend continues and we see more athletes like Neal. I've been watching the swimming and I have to say I am pretty sick of white people by now. I watched the qualifying rounds, but I don't think I will even watch the finals, if it is going to be this many whites there too. Who wants to watch a bunch of privileged white people splashing around for hours and hours? Swimming sucks because of this.

Jul. 30 2012 05:00 AM
clive betters

they are not mutually exclusive. or,is it,that you simply live in a monotone issue world, of your own fabrication. for what it is worth, i'm not african american. you're very foolish.

Jul. 29 2012 01:38 PM
Ceepia from Florida

Bravo Clive! Whenever black skin is involved race is guaranteed to be mentioned. It's the American way. The story is how these young people were exposed to something early in their lives, trained hard, battled obstacles and have risen to a status where they are able to compete on the world stage. Dare I say just like all of the athletes.

Jul. 29 2012 08:14 AM
clive betters

i'm so happy for them. however,and this is strange, coming from someone such as myself. i do wish, we could not not have to talk about, their, or anyone else's, "racial" makeup. at least someday. no,i'm not a right wing racial denialist. nor, are we a post-racial society,whatever the hell that's suppossed to mean. i wonder,how in the world, do we ascribe a default racial, non-white status,to anyone who has some connection to latin amerca[a problematic incomplete term itself],however direct or oblique that connection may be. it's not that "whitness", should even be, important to begin with;but why is everyone from "latin-america",given automatic "non-white" status. it's basically a lazy shorthand designation,that presumes to define or describe, huge numbers of peoples from divergent backgrounds. the simplistic dualism, of white vs black as a category is absurd.

Jul. 28 2012 10:27 AM

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