IPSWICH'S CHAMPION MOTHER
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO RAISE KIDS WHO ARE MAD FOR SPORT?
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.