Members of the U.S. women's relay team: from left, Lia...

Members of the U.S. women's relay team: from left, Lia Neal, Allison Schmitt, Jessica Hardy and Missy Franklin. (July 28, 2012) Credit: AP

Natalie Coughlin won her 12th Olympic medal Saturday, only this time she was out of the pool on the bench as Brooklyn's Lia Neal and fellow 17-year-old Missy Franklin joined Jessica Hardy and Allison Schmitt to take the bronze in the women's 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay final.

As Coughlin tied Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for most career medals by an American woman, Neal became the second U.S. female swimmer of African-American descent to win one.

"I'm just so happy we all chipped in to help Natalie achieve this accomplishment,'' Neal told NBC Sports. "I've learned quite a lot from her.''

The teen is entering her senior year at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan and has been on the Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics swim team for nine years.

Team USA set an American record, finishing in 3:34.24 Saturday, but Australia won the event in an Olympic-record time of 3:33.15. The Netherlands took second (3:33.79).

In a somewhat surprising move, U.S. coach Teri McKeever opted to leave Coughlin -- whom she personally coaches -- off the relay team for the evening final after morning preliminaries. Neal and Schmitt competed in both races and Coughlin, 29, and Amanda Weir were replaced by Hardy and Franklin.

"I don't envy the coaches, what they had to go through this morning," Coughlin told NBC after the final. "They really weighed the decision and I think they made a good one."

Hardy and Franklin swam the first two legs and gave the United States a lead, but Australia's Brittany Elmslie overtook Neal in the third leg and Australia pulled away.

Neal earned a spot on the Olympic team with a fourth-place finish in the trials in Omaha, Neb., on June 30, joining Maritza Correia as the only women of African-American descent to swim for the United States in the Olympics. Correia won a silver medal in 2004 in the same event.

Team USA last won the 4 x 100 relay in the 2000 Olympics. Australia won in 2004 and the Netherlands in 2008.

Neal, whose father is African-American and her mother Chinese-American, became an overnight sensation after qualifying and even received Twitter kudos from film director Spike Lee and singer Alicia Keys, fellow New York-born celebrities.

She swam the lead leg of Saturday's preliminary heat, helping Team USA take second (3:36.53) and make the final. Australia's 3:36.34 was tops in the qualifier.

Of her role as a trailblazer, Neal told The Associated Press in June, "I just hope this inspires more people to join the sport."

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