Lia Neal competes in the Women's 4x100m Freestyle heats at the 2019 FINA World Championships on July 21, 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea.
Swimmers Lia Neal and Jacob Pebley had hoped to spend late June leading races. They ended up leading a movement.
With the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming in Omaha postponed due to the coronavirus, Neal and Pebley dove into their new initiative “Swimmers for Change.”
They organized 12 straight days of webinars to discuss racism and bring awareness to Black Lives Matter, raise money for selected charities and organizations, and share stories about quarantine in the time of COVID-19. They also provided information about nutrition, technique, mental performance, the swimming/life balance and anything else more than 30 Olympians, Paralympians and national team members wanted to tackle.
Neal, a two-time Olympic sprinter who won silver and bronze medals in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, said they wanted to show that “even in swimming, a predominantly white sport, we don’t stand for racism and we are here to show that we do believe that Black Lives Matter.
“It’s easy to stay silent and we wanted to be able to provide that platform for swimmers, for these high-level elite athletes that people look up to, to know they do want to help and be a part of that change. It was just a matter of how we were going to do it.”
The impetus came from Pebley, who was fifth in the 200-meter backstroke at the Rio Games and won the bronze at the 2017 world championships in the same event. In March, Pebley wrote an open letter pushing USA Swimming to advocate postponing the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Then in June, he said he was “really freaking sad about what’s happening right now, and I asked Lia if she had any ideas how we could use our platform as swimmers on social media.”
The two are friends and teammates in San Diego. Pebley, 26, is white and Neal, 25, is of African American and Chinese descent.
“Jacob and I were in that similar position at the beginning of feeling a bit helpless,” Neal said. “The week of Blackout Tuesday (June 2), when things were really starting to take flight, the swimming community was kind of in that limbo of not really knowing what to do or how to do it. And it felt like every day, every minute that was going by was a major opportunity lost.”
In a week and a half, they were up and running, with the help of Cejih Yung, CEO and lead agent of The CG Sports Company, and Caroline Kosciusko, who leads the production of all CG Sports Network live episodes.
“Jacob and Lia are both on the quieter side, yet each is very well spoken and unafraid to act,” Yung said. “They are veterans of Team USA and USA Swimming and have assumed true leadership roles during tough times.”
So far, 1,200 people have registered to view the webinars and receive the newsletter. They also have raised more than $15,000 for the charities and organizations – which were selected each episode by the swimmers -- through donations and sales of T-shirts, baseball caps and swim caps.
Pebley and Neal originally thought they would do one webinar, then became much more ambitious.
“Once we reached out to a few people, it grew and grew into this beautiful community,” Pebley said. “It has brought a lot of people together that would never have imagined crossing paths.”
“This really is strength in numbers,” Neal added. “We had over 30 athletes, and then once we got it rolling, we even had more athletes reaching out to us. And that just goes to show that you just need to be able to provide that platform for people because a lot of people do have the heart and the right intention, they just don’t know how to do it.”
The athletes in each episode explained why they chose a charity or foundation to support, such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative, Henderson Hopkins Elementary School, The Conscious Kid, Embrace Race, Raised Roots Farm, Stoked, Trident Swim Foundation, 100 Black Men of America and the Loveland Foundation.
“Everyone told their own story,” Pebley said. “It was very impactful to hear not only someone from the black community talking about this, but also someone from the white community and why there has to be so much change.”
Donations will be collected until the end of the month and merchandise sales will also continue through July. More than 500 T-shrts have already been sold.
The webinars will remain available as an educational resource on their website.
Neal kicked off the first episode, “Sprinters and the Revolution,” on June 15 with Olympic gold medalists Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones. Neal said this was the most in-depth conversation she has had about race.
Episode 2 was “Quarantine Knowledge” with Pebley and the DeLoof sisters – Ali, Catie and Gabby.
Pebley was more nervous than he would have been at the Trials.
“It was like getting ready for a swim meet, but I don’t know how to swim,” he said. “It was super intense, but after I did it and saw all the responses, I felt so at ease and relaxed and I kind of rode the wave the rest of the week and a half after that.”
Pebley said he didn’t know if anyone would watch. The first episode had about 300-400 viewers, and they wound up averaging 500-600. Another 350-400 people watched the replay.
“It’s insane how much this has grown in just a couple of weeks,” Pebley said.
Rebecca Soni, Caroline Burckle and Jamal Hill were featured in the “Mental Health” episode, with Hill, a Paralympian, explaining his goal of teaching one million people to swim through a digital swim school platform.
You can learn to swim without a pool, like who would have thought?” Neal said.
In the next episodes, Kendyl Stewart, Madison Kennedy and Linnea Mack led a yoga/barre class; McKenzie Coan, Katie Meili and Kara Lynn Joyce discussed “Law and Business;” Nathan Adrian, Maya DiRado and Katie Drabot talked about Juneteenth and transitions in life; Elizabeth Beisel, Leah Smith and Abraham DeVine took on nutrition and Lilly King, Hali Flickinger and Annie Lazor answered questions about “Mindset and Motivation.”
That was followed by a team environment discussion with Kelsi Dahlia, Mallory Comerford and Zach Harting.
Neal said she was struck by the mental health training episode with Katie Hoff, Ashley Twichell and Giles Smith.
“Each of these athletes basically bared their soul in this one and it made it so impactful,” she said. “(They were) basically addressing things that swimmers so often keep to themselves because they see everyone else seemingly not struggle.”
“All Things Breaststroke” with Josh Prenot, Andrew Wilson and Madisyn Cox inspired Pebley to post his best time in that stroke in his next workout.
“You should tell them that,” said Neal.
“I did,” said Pebley.
The final episode was a cooking show with Natalie Coughlin, Kim Vandenberg and Gary Hall Jr. in which Coughlin revealed her recipe for Adobo Chicken and also announced her pregnancy.
The “Swimmers for Change” founders are now discussing ways to keep this community alive and well “throughout tomorrow and through forever,” Pebley said.
They plan to register to become a non-profit and seek sponsorship.
They’ll provide information on their Instagram page, which has built a healthy following and they hope to produce a webinar once a month. Maybe there could even be a “Swimmers for Change” swim meet as they aim to bring more diversity to their sport.
However, producing shows for 12 straight days exhausted both swimmers, just like finishing a race.
“We were purely running off pure passion, and that passion carried us for 2 ½ weeks,” Neal said. “We just had a vision. We knew what we wanted to do and just used that to fuel us.”
She wrote on LinkedIn that she “went from feeling hopeless/lackadaisical to feeling like I was living with more purpose within the matter of a few weeks.”
Pebley said he overcame his fear of speaking up on what he said “shouldn’t be a polarizing issue… on saving black lives in our country. It’s so annoying that I’m scared to say something, to speak up.
“What I’ve learned, is that if you feel passionately about something, just say something. You break your own barrier or someone else’s. It’s so important. If you have a family member that feels a certain way, and you know it’s wrong, say something. They’re going to keep thinking that way if you don’t at least nudge them in the right direction.”
Pebley said the name “Swimmers for Change” is ambiguous on purpose and there are other issues they eventually want to touch on.
“We just finished Pride Month,” he said, “so that’s something we can do next year and other things in the future as well. We want change and we’re swimmers.”
Added Neal, “We’re really about making the world a better place.”