Friends, Rivals, Sensations: Stanford Duo Making A Splash
Back when she was 13 years old, Lia Neal thought Stanford might be the right place for her.
"Being on the East Coast, from New York, I was always fascinated by the idea of California," Neal said. "And I think Stanford was the only college I knew in California."
Six years later, The Farm is the fit Neal always imagined it would be.
Neal finds a connection with her teammates, a coach who nurtures her, and now a young teammate who is both close friend and formidable foe.
Neal and freshman sensation Simone Manuel are training partners. They hang out between races, goofing around on the pool deck. Neal, a sophomore, has mentored Manuel through many travails of her freshman year, helped her with the logistical and practical issues that freshmen don't always immediately grasp.
And when they get into the pool, "We definitely become competitive and we push each other," Neal said.
Manuel broke the American record in the 100 free in November, five months after making ripples across the national swim scene by beating Missy Franklin at the USA Swimming ARENA Grand Prix in Santa Clara, California, a dozen miles from where she would begin her college career.
As the NCAA championships commence this week at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in North Carolina, these two sprinters, who swim the same races at the same world-class level, are going head-to-head in some of the most anticipated races of the meet and anchoring a Stanford team aiming for a 10th national title.
Manuel has set school records this season in the 50, 100 and 200 free. She is seeded first in the 50 and 100 at the NCAA championships and second in the 200, behind Cal's Franklin. Neal is seeded 19th in the 50 free, second in the 100 and fifth in the 200.
"They are two peas in a pod," Stanford head coach Greg Meehan said of Neal and Manuel, arguably the two highest-profile African-American female swimmers in the country. Neal is also of Chinese descent. "They are very different people, but they are very good friends and they really have a high level of respect for each other."
Neal called Manuel "a very mature person."
"As far as handling pressure and attention, she's got that down," Neal said.
Meehan said that Neal is at her best when the spotlight is on.
"She isn't the most consistent trainer, but when it's time to go, she's so good," Meehan said. "She showed that as a freshman last year."
Neal helped Stanford win three NCAA championships in the relays and finished second in the 100 freestyle.
A year later, Neal has surrendered some of the marquee to a new freshman superstar in Manuel.
Meehan believes that Manuel, who declined an interview as she prepared for final exams in advance of the NCAA meet, has taken some pressure off Neal.
"She has a huge spotlight on her and she's managed it well," Meehan said of Manuel.
"And it's given Lia some freedom to do what she needs to do. And that's really showing itself in the back half of this season. The competition [with Manuel] has helped her in training, it's helped her in competition."
Meehan has seen both swimmers turn into role models. Both Neal and Manuel have spent time with kids who stop by to talk with them or get an autograph. And they have worked with USA Swimming on youth programs as well. Both are aiming to become the first African-American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal.
"We don't put ourselves out there," Neal said. "One day a girl and her mom showed up to watch practice and they wanted to meet up, and the mom said the reason she brought her was to show her daughter that she could do anything she sets her mind to. Her mom wanted to expose her to the possibilities.
"It's humbling that people would look up to me."
Meehan is always impressed with the way his young swimmers handle themselves.
"I think they are huge inspirations to young African-American girls, and really girls of any race," Meehan said. "Our sport is much more diverse than it was 20 years ago, and we are starting to see more African-Americans in the sport. And here are these two amazing women who are fantastic swimmers and who really care about school and doing things the right way.
"What I respect about them is that they draw attention through their performances and how they carry themselves on a daily basis, but not by telling everyone how great they are. They so embody the Stanford culture."
Neal, who won a bronze medal on the U.S. 4x100 freestyle relay team at the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, arrived at Stanford as the first big recruit for Meehan. Meehan came over from the men's program at Cal, but Neal said she was hearing good things about him before that.
Meehan, meanwhile, was getting a late start on recruiting after being hired a month before the start of the 2012 academic year.
"She hadn't made a decision yet and that opened the door for me to start communicating with her," Meehan said. "She was a great student as far as admissions, and I just really liked her."
Neal said she met her future teammates and said she could picture herself in the program.
"We all had the same sense of humor," Neal said. "The last two years have proved that I made the right choice."
Meehan described Neal as soft-spoken and observant.
"Lia took a step back and really watched everything and that really made an impression on me," Meehan said.
Neal decided she was coming to Stanford, a decision that Meehan called "a big deal for our program."
"We were just starting, and I had a clear vision of what I wanted and she fit into that," Meehan said. "Things changed for us when we were able to get one of only two high schoolers on the  Olympic team. On a personal level, it meant a lot to me. She's a great, interesting kid. In a lot of ways, she validated our program when she decided to come here"
Neal said she has embraced the Stanford culture of excellence.
"Everyone here is really talented and has done some amazing things," Neal said. "It's a hub for meeting really cool people."
Neal said despite her status as an Olympic medal winner, she has never felt pressure at Stanford.
"Being surrounded by so many crazy-talented people, you kind of get spoiled with how accomplished all these people are," Neal said.
Neal said she is feeling her best heading into the NCAA meet.
"I've already done the physical work," Neal said. "Now it's time to put it all together."