Katie Meili has a knack for the unconventional. She’s a Columbia athlete planning on going pro post-college. She goes head-to-head with Olympians on a fairly regular basis. And she loved the Core.
Meili is the co-captain of the swim team and the female winner of this year’s Connie S. Maniatty award, which is given annually to the best male and the best female athletes in the graduating class. She steamrolled through an incredible final season to end her collegiate career with a total of three All-American honors. She leaves Columbia in possession of three Ivy League records, five individual school records, and seven Ivy titles.
When choosing a college, the swimmer shook things up, forgoing opportunities closer to home to pursue an Ivy education.
“I lived my whole life in the same small little suburb in Texas, and it’s kind of the expectation that you go to high school there and you go to one of the big Texas schools and you move back to where you’re from,” Meili said. “I just didn’t really want that. I wanted something different and exciting.”
Inevitably, her success has drawn numerous comparisons to a prominent former Lion, Cristina Teuscher, CC ’00, the only Columbia swimmer ever to place higher than Meili at NCAAs. But Teuscher came in as a freshman having already secured Olympic gold. Her success did not surprise anyone.
“Freshman year, I never ever thought that I would go to NCAAs or be placing. I remember once I thought, ‘It would be cool to go to NCAAs, I’d probably get 50th, but it would be really cool to go there,’” Meili said. “It’s just crazy that this all happened.”
Meili’s third-place finish in the 100 breaststroke at this year’s NCAAs was a far cry from that thought. The finish gives her hope heading into the national championships in June, where she’ll compete for a spot on the U.S. World Championship team. The berth would earn her a stipend from USA Swimming and solidify her status as a professional athlete.
But in the meantime, she must hunt for smaller sponsors. The decision to turn pro was by no means easy.
“Even in March, I was still interviewing for jobs because I didn’t think I was going to continue,” Meili said. “Honestly, I recently just decided, OK, I’m doing this no matter what.”
Her decision seems more like the result of a slow burn than a foregone conclusion, set in motion when someone asked her about her postgraduate plans, following a successful junior campaign.
“I was like well, I don’t think I can stop,” Meili said, laughing before real panic entered her voice. “It kind of hit me, like, oh my gosh. I don’t think I can stop. I don’t think I can give this up.”
Despite her success on the national level, Meili’s still a dark horse in her sport, which virtually never sees Ivy Leaguers enter its ranks.
But at home in Morningside Heights, “she’s left open a much bigger realm of possibility,” said head coach Diana Caskey, whom Meili called her “second mom.” “She’s left that mark that people can achieve much more than they came in thinking they could achieve.”
Caskey and Meili both pointed to Meili’s inherent competitiveness as a crucial factor in her success.
“She really likes to win,” Caskey said. “She has that thing inside that when you set a goal for her or show her where you think she can be, she is willing to sacrifice to get there.”
“I’m so competitive with myself and with other people,” Meili said. “Not even at meets—every day in practice, I always have to beat what I did last week or beat what I did yesterday. I’m just always trying to be better and better and better.”
The swim and dive team’s third-place finish at the Ivy League championship, where Meili earned her second consecutive Swimmer of the Meet award, carried the highest point total in team history and showed marked improvement from the class of 2013’s first conference championships. At the 2010 meet, the team, which Meili described as having “a different culture,” finished a dismal sixth.
The current seniors worked to turn the tide, accomplishing goals that were unimaginable in recent seasons.
“From our freshman year, we’ve held ourselves to a higher standard. All of us wanted success, and we wanted the team to be successful, and I knew that we had to lead by example if we wanted that,” Meili said. She added that they “were hard on ourselves and hard on our teammates in a good way, just so we could get to that level of success.”
Championship finishes aside, the squad also took on the Goliath of Princeton last year, becoming the first team ever to beat the perennial juggernaut on its home turf. Meili counts this feat among the greatest moments of her college career.
“My freshman year, that would have been a crazy person’s thought, and the fact that two years later it was being realized—it was just amazing,” she said.
Once again put in the position of proving herself, Meili’s ready to suit up for her next challenge as World Championship Trials near.
“I’ve kind of found a new drive to do it because I know, kind of, my whole career rests on that one meet,” she said. “So I’d better do everything I possibly can to make it good.”