THERE isn’t a par­ent in the world who doesn’t want the best for their chil­dren.

We watch them grow from ba­bies to tod­dlers, to chil­dren, to teens and into adult­hood.

Karen Neale ad­mits she is no dif­fer­ent to ev­ery other mum in Ip­swich, but her kids are the ones prov­ing to be out of the or­di­nary.

Her el­dest, Leah, needs no in­tro­duc­tion to Ip­swich res­i­dents. She is an Olympic sil­ver medal­list and Com­mon­wealth Games gold medal­list who is now study­ing at univer­sity while train­ing for her next big event.

The medals were just re­wards for many years of spend­ing hours swim­ming up and down lo­cal pools, get­ting up early, eat­ing right, and rid­ing the ups and downs that psy­cho­log­i­cally, sport plays on your mind.

It is a ded­i­ca­tion to suc­cess that the en­tire fam­ily has demon­strated.

Born and bred in Ip­swich, Karen loves the place, and it’s a pride she wears on her sleeve.

“I’ve lived here all my live, proudly born and bred,” she said.

“My favourite mem­o­ries of Ip­swich were as a kid, go­ing to Race­view State School, which I loved, and on week­ends rid­ing my bike out to Ri­p­ley, which was a lot dif­fer­ent then.

“I al­ways re­mem­ber the CBD of Ip­swich be­ing so busy, and be­ing part of a real com­mu­nity. My par­ents knew lots of peo­ple and I grew up do­ing the same. It was a fun place to grow up.”

Karen and her hus­band, Ian, were blessed with three chil­dren, all who grew up with a love for sport.

“Leah is the el­dest at 22, Ash­ley is 21 and Sarah is 19. They all went to school at Silk­stone, then St Mary’s for the girls and Ash­ley went to St Ed­die’s. We are so lucky to have such good schools in Ip­swich,” Karen said.

“When she was at school Leah was once told by some­one that she’d never make a good leader. That drove her on, it in­spired her, and she was even­tu­ally se­lected as cap­tain of the Queens­land swim team.

“For some rea­son it re­ally af­fected her, be­ing told she wouldn’t suc­ceed, she had so much pride.

“As par­ents, we al­ways wanted to keep school and sport sep­a­rate, and we never took any schol­ar­ships.

“We knew school had to come first, she needed a ca­reer, as let’s be hon­est, sport is only a short-term ca­reer choice.”

Karen would take Leah to swim­ming train­ing most days and it was a lo­cal Ip­swich icon of swim­ming who first no­ticed that the girl from New­town was start­ing to show ta­lent.

“It was Peter McMahon who high­lighted her ta­lent to us. He told us that he’d taken her as far as he could,” Karen said.

“So we had to go else­where. We went out to Le­ich­hardt and they liked her but couldn’t fit her into the squad, and I thought where do I go from here?

“Peter sug­gested the coach at St Ed­mund’s and the coach there came to me with a re­ally se­ri­ous face. I thought, here we go again, an­other one say­ing no. “He said ‘Karen I’d be an id­iot not to take her’.” As time passed, Leah’s ta­lent con­tin­ued to de­velop but it was Mum and Dad who laid down the rules from the very start.

“We told her from the start, if you are go­ing to do this (swim­ming) then you have to be the one who gets up for train­ing, we’re not go­ing to wake you up,” Karen said.

“To her credit she al­ways got up on time. Only one time was she late, in­stead of be­ing up at 5am she was up at 5.45am and woke us up.

“We said ‘don’t worry about it, go back to bed’, and she said ‘no, get in the car and get me to train­ing’.

“She got there, made up the time and got to school on time too. She was al­ways self-driven.

“For me, it was about hav­ing fun. I’d say to all my kids be­fore train­ing or sport ‘I love you, try your best and have fun’, that’s what I al­ways said.

“Leah would tell me her times each day and I’d al­ways say ‘did you have fun?’

“For me, as a par­ent, this was al­ways about her en­joy­ing what she was do­ing. I ad­mired her as a per­son, I loved that en­durance and de­ter­mi­na­tion. She was do­ing it be­cause she wanted to do it, no other rea­son.”

Karen said a com­ment from an­other par­ent helped shape her en­tire at­ti­tude to chil­dren’s sport.

“We never re­ally thought about it that much, the com­pet­i­tive side of swim­ming,” she said.

“We never kept records or such and one day an­other par­ent asked me what her time was for some dis­tance, and when I said I don’t know they said ‘well, you’ll never be a swim­mer’s mother’.

“That made me re­ally think. I thought, no, I’m not a swim­mer’s mother. I’m Leah’s mother, I’m Ash­ley’s mother and I’m Sarah’s mother.

“For me that was a les­son learned and it made me more de­ter­mined to keep all my kids on track. Know­ing they are fine and se­cure, that’s what mat­ters.

“I was de­ter­mined to build three peo­ple who can take the falls, en­joy the graces and be a well-rounded per­son at the end of the day.

“I thought let’s see where this goes. All three kids were swim­ming at this point and Ian and I worked as a true part­ner­ship.

“He’d get them up and take them train­ing, then go to work. I would make the break­fasts and I’d see them in the af­ter­noons be­fore that train­ing ses­sion, spend time with them, then we’re all to­gether for din­ner.”

De­spite the suc­cess, the Neales re­main the same as they’ve al­ways been.

“We don’t live in a flash home, we are very mod­est peo­ple,” Karen said.

“We made sure as par­ents that the kids were first and fore­most and that’s just what we did. Ian and I had to be on the same page, there’s no other way to do it.

“Leah is no dif­fer­ent to any teen; messy bed­rooms, do­ing as­sign­ments at the last minute, all the usual stuff. I work as a teacher so there’s lots of plan­ning I do for work, plus hav­ing two other kids to look af­ter as well.

“It was all about keep­ing the balls in the air and try­ing to keep Leah fo­cussed.

“I’ve al­ways had that ap­proach that life is to be taken, don’t sit back.”

When Leah was named in the Aus­tralian swim squad for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janiero, it was re­ward for the years of ded­i­ca­tion, from Leah and her other fam­ily mem­bers, so it was only fit­ting they all made the trip to Brazil to watch Leah com­pete in the

4 x 200m re­lay.

“It was a daunt­ing time,” Karen said.

“We went as a fam­ily and we were all very anx­ious. “On the day of the heats we were in C cat­e­gory seats

which was right at the top.

“Then they made the fi­nals so we went back to our unit and got ready for the night time fi­nals.

“Then we thought we’d up­grade and treat our­selves to B cat­e­gory tick­ets. Worst move ever.

“When we got there, we couldn’t see the board to read any re­sults and the pre­sen­ta­tions were right un­der­neath us.

“She dived in, swam a great race and when it had fin­ished we still couldn’t see the score­board, I had no idea where we came. Then some­one yelled out ‘sec­ond’. It was so close.

“Most peo­ple left by the time the pre­sen­ta­tion came around and I sneaked into a VIP area, then got quickly ush­ered out. I said ‘but that’s my kid there.’

“Luck­ily the TV net­work helped us out to see Leah, and we were leav­ing the next day so knew we wouldn’t see her for a cou­ple of weeks.

“When we fi­nally left at 1am the en­tire venue, site of the Olympics, was to­tally de­serted. The place was empty and, of course, no pub­lic trans­port. Have you ever tried to ex­plain to a taxi driver who doesn’t speak English where your apart­ment is in a for­eign city? We have.

“We joked on the way back that we’d have been bet­ter off back in Ip­swich and watch­ing it all on TV but we were all so proud. Some­one in our fam­ily has won an Olympic sil­ver medal.”

Karen brims with pride when talk­ing about Leah’s medal suc­cess.

“I’d be proud as punch to get any medal at any­thing,” she said.

“It means you’re up there with the best. Plus, I’ve al­ways said bronze is even bet­ter be­cause you get to stand on the podium the long­est.

“Back home and it was al­ready past tense for Leah, she was look­ing for­ward. You have to build some­thing within your­self to get to that next level.

“We were hold­ing this medal think­ing wow, but she’s al­ready had enough, she’s think­ing what’s next?”

In fact, the next thing for Leah was a gold medal in the 4 x 200m re­lay at the 2018 Com­mon­wealth Games, held on the Gold Coast ear­lier this year.

“As a teacher I have to keep mov­ing on, fo­cus on the next thing and put it into prac­tise,” Karen said.

“I’ve al­ways tried to learn from things and go for­ward, and I guess my kids are the same.”

The golden ques­tion most par­ents would want to know is in re­gards to food. When you have an Olympian at the ta­ble, what’s on the menu?

“At din­ner time, it’s meat and veg con­stantly and it was never cooked with mari­nades. I do lasagne with salad but I’ve never made dif­fer­ent meals for Leah be­cause she’s an ath­lete or in train­ing,” Karen said.

“Ev­ery­thing in mod­er­a­tion, that’s what I think, and of­ten I would do my own cakes and bis­cuits so they weren’t buy­ing them from a shop.

“Eat what’s in front of you be­cause chances are it’s pro­tein and veg­gies with oc­ca­sional carbs.

“I’ve sat with sports nu­tri­tion­ists who gave out ad­vice to par­ents of ath­letes and I never re­ally got much from it.”

For those hop­ing to raise an Olympian, Karen has just sim­ple ad­vice.

“I’d say make sure they have fun,” she said. “They have to have fun in what­ever they do, and not to be so se­ri­ous.

“As a par­ent you have to make sure they en­joy it, as it can be a hard road.

“There’s go­ing to be knocks along the way, but they have to love what they do.”


Karen Neale in the kitchen of her home that has seen many a healthy meal made. Leah Neale with brother Ash­ley and sis­ter Sarah af­ter she was named in the Aus­tralian swim team to com­pete at the 2016 Olympic Games.


Leah Neale with her Olympic sil­ver medal when she re­ceived the Keys to the City. Karen and Leah Neale were both at the Com­mon­wealth Games on the Gold Coast, but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.


Leah with her sil­ver medal from the Rio Olympics, where she had her fam­ily to cheer her on.

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