9/11 scholarship pays off with Olympic medal
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When friends and families of Andrew Fisher and Douglas Irgang created a scholarship fund in their memory shortly after 9/11 to help city kids learn how to swim, no one envisioned that it would one day produce an Olympian.
Yet that's exactly what happened in July at the London Olympics.
Lia Neal, 17, a scholarship recipient and high school senior from Brooklyn, captured the bronze medal in the women's 400-meter freestyle relay. Neal and her teammates -- Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy and Allison Schmitt -- finished behind Australia and the Netherlands.
Neal, whose father is African-American and whose mother is Chinese, is only the second African-American female swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic team.
"It's a real nice notion that they turned a tragic event into something that benefits children of all ages," said Neal, who now has her sights on the 2016 Olympics. "I am grateful."
Fisher, 42, and Irgang, 32, were both Masters swimmers at the Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics, or AGUA, center on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where Neal has been training since she was in elementary school.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Fisher, who grew up in Bay Shore and worked as a director of sales for Imagine Software, was at a conference at Windows on the World atop the north tower. Irgang, 32, who grew up in Roslyn, worked for Sandler O'Neill as a trader in institutional sales on the 104th floor of the south tower.
On the 11th anniversary of the attacks Tuesday, Douglas' brother Steven Irgang, 46, of Manhattan, and his family will watch the 9/11 ceremony on television. After Douglas Irgang's name is read, the family will drive to New Montefiore Cemetery in Farmingdale to visit his grave site, where they'll light a candle in his memory.
Steven Irgang plans to tell his brother about all that the scholarship fund has accomplished in his name, including Neal's achievement.
"I think he would say keep up the great work. Never let it end," Steven Irgang said.
Within weeks of their deaths, friends who swam with Fisher and Irgang reached out to the men's families seeking to do something to honor them.
The idea for a scholarship was born.
The Swim for the Future Scholarship Fund has awarded more than $200,000 to 78 swimmers, enabling the youngsters' families to pay for the annual fee, currently $3,805, to join the swim team. It has also helped turn AGUA into one of the most diverse teams in the country.
In addition to Neal, two other scholarship recipients, Michael Domagala and En-Wei Hu-Van Wright, were also invited to try out for the Olympics.
"It was very exciting for my family, in particular, because my brother was a competitive swimmer," said Fisher's brother, John Fisher, 58, of Manhattan. "I am sure the notion of a scholarship fund would have given him a lot of joy. And the fact that Lia went on to win a bronze medal is terrific."
When Steven Irgang met Neal three years after his brother died, she was only 8 years old.
"She was shy and cute, and had these thick glasses," he remembered. "She jumped into the water and swam the freestyle. She swam across the full 25 yards. I was like, wow, this girl has some potential."
At the beginning, Neal swam once or twice a week. Now, it's twice a day some days.
"She kept breaking all the Asphalt Green records, the boys', too," Steven Irgang said.
Neal gets up before 5 a.m. Her mother, Siu Neal, drives her from Brooklyn to Manhattan so she can practice for two hours before school. The teenager works out for another two hours after school.
In addition to the commitment of time, there are costs associated with training, Siu Neal said. Every three months she has to buy new swimsuits, goggles and caps. When her daughter travels to other states for swim meets, Siu Neal accompanies her. That means hotel and airfare bills.
The scholarship money "makes it much easier. I can go to more meets with her," Siu Neal said. "I can be there with her and watch her swim."
Swimming isn't the only thing the children learn. The discipline and work ethic they learn through swimming are carried into their adult lives, John Fisher said. Swimming has opened up opportunities for some youngsters and earned college scholarships for others.
"For me, the best part is interacting and interviewing the kids and watching them develop into young adults," he said. "And having perhaps a small, but not insignificant, part in helping them develop into good citizens."