Natalie Hinds and Lia Neal, two of the greatest swimmers in U.S. history, are competing for the Cali Condors in the International Swimming League (ISL) which is taking place in the "Budapest Bubble", the Dunn Arena in Hungary.
Hinds (Midland Texas), a 20-time NCAA champion and 3-time SEC champion for the University of Florida, has been one of the Condors' top peformers and consistently finishing in the top three in her races that began in mid-October. Those results are amazing considering Hinds took time away from swimming before returning to high-level competition.
Neal (Brooklyn, New York), a two-time Olympic Medalist (Bronze in 2012 and Silver in 2016), was a guest on SportsJam with Doug Doyle in 2013 when she was a 17-year old competing at a Rutgers swimming event after capturing her first Olympic Medal.
What has it been like swimming in a "bubble" for more than five weeks now?
For Hinds, the routine schedule has kept her busy in Hungary.
"I think it's great for the most part. We're here with our teammates and our team really does get along so it's nice to be with people who are going through the same thing as you. As far as the "bubble" is concerned, we go from the hotel to the pool, from the pool to the hotel and that's pretty much it. We are allowed to take walks but they are for a limited amount of time. So you are really confined to the hotel in that sense. We haven't gone crazy just yet. I think having competition and keeping with the schedules really helped a lot of us, but for the most part it's going really well."
The International Swimming League has more than 300 Olympic standouts and hopefuls participating in the largest international competition in any sport since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lia Neal says it's been surprising to her and many others that there hasn't been an outbreak there.
"That's just a testament to how careful everyone is and all the safety precautions we have to take. We get tested every five days. We have to fill out a questionnaire every day. It's like how you're feeling. It's a few questions. They've been taking it really seriously. We wear masks everywhere."
The ISL features a team format, 52 hours of live coverage acrosss CBS platforms and $6 million in prize money.
In 2015, Neal and Hinds became two of the first three people of African American descent to place in the top three spots at the 100-yard freestyle in any Women's Division I NCAA Swimming Championship. Simone Manuel was first, Neal was seond and Hinds was third.
Neal, a former standout at Stanford University, has not only contributed in the pool for the Condors, but even more out of it. Neal teamed with Jacob Pebly of the DC Trident team to form "Swimmers For Change," a grassroots initiative providing a platform for the swimming community to contribute towards awareness and support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She is of African and Chinese descent (Mother's side) and is fluent in Cantonese.
"Swimmers for Change" began around the time of George Floyd's death when this new era, this civil rights movement started to take form. Jacob Pebly texted me because I think we were both just feeling the same way. He was just looking for some guidance on what to do just as swimmers, like how could we use our platform? We just felt so helpless in the moment. Our national governing body wasn't putting out anything. So we can't wait for USA Swimming to do anything anymore, we have to do something ourselves. So we came up with a webinar series. It ran for two weeks. I cold-called like 40 athletes. We had Olympians, Paralympians and National team athletes take part in our webinar series. Each episode was hosted by three athletes and was dedicated to the charity of their choosing. We had a range in episodes from nutrition to a cooking class to talking about what is going on right now. It was really special to see everyone come together like that. It surpassed my expectations. It came from a place of pure passion."
When Hinds first started swimming in Midland, Texas at the age of 4, she was the only black person on her team but race was not on her mind then. She started to notice when she was 12 and was traveling to bigger meets in Dallas that nobody was sitting next to her dad. Her passion for social justice would grow over time.
"When you're a swimmer in college, personally speaking, and a lot police brutality was going on, you kind of just feel like you wouldn't really make a difference. Finally, the flip switched and I was like I've got to do something. So I always say to someone who is like 'Hi, I don't know what I can do, how can I help?' I always point them in the direction of eji.org (Equal Justice Initative) because they're really big on education. They're big on justice reform. They're big on social reform. They always have projects going on and you can always donate money. It is your one-stop shop to get started on just becoming familiar with Black LIves Matter, the history of racism, the history of lynching, the history of what Black people have gone through to date."
When it comes to musical tastes, Hinds loves R & B and Soul music. She's well aware that Lia's father, Rome Neal, is an actor, producer, director and jazz vocalist in New York.
"Our dads met when we were like in freshman year in college. And I remember her dad gave my dad one of his CD's and so my dad has always been a fan of her dad. My dad is also into jazz as well. So I listen to a little jazz. I listen to what my parents do, I think I'm an old soul."
Lia's father has a few virtual events scheduled including Rome Neal's Banana Puddin' Jazz presentation of JAZZY THESPIANS NIGHT on YouTube Sunday night November 15 featuring Savion Glover and Rhonda Ross and next week's 'Rome Neal as Monk."
Rome's music has influenced Lia too but she admits jazz is more of her wind down, part of her night-time routine.
How difficult has it been for Neal and Hinds not seeing friends and family for more than a month while they're competing in the 'bubble" in Hungary?
For Neal it hasn't been that bad. She had spent all of her quarantine with her parents.
"So it's actually the most time I've spent with them since high school, maybe even more ,since school was just swimming and I'd see them at home for dinner and sleeping. My mom she's great and my number one supporter in everything. She's always been that person to take me too all of my practices growing up and meets. She retired when I was ten and so it became like her full-time job to be my chauffeur (chuckling) and embody the "swim mom" to the fullest extent."
Hinds is happy the swimmers get to return to the U.S. for Thanksgiving week. She says being away from her parents has been pretty difficult.
"I was with them all quarantine. I'm very close with them and was with them for three or four month. Not only leaving them but leaving the country, especially with everything that's going on was kind of stressful to say the least but I'm making sure to stay in contact with them. We FaceTime. But I also realize this is my job and I have to do it. And God-willing we'll all come home and it will be good."
You can hear the entire SportsJam conversation with Natalie Hinds and Lia Neal by clicking at the top of the page.