Article Image
Courtesy of Melissa Lundie Photography

Katie Meili, CC '13, is set to race in the 100-meter breaststroke final on Monday evening in Rio de Janeiro.

Katie Meili, CC '13, heads into the final heat of 100-meter breaststroke in Rio de Janeiro as one of the favorites for the gold medal, but even as recently as her sophomore year, the Colleyville, Texas native entertained little thought of Olympic glory.

After all, Meili wasn't even dominating the Ivy League back in 2010-11.

She had been a strong swimmer in her first two years in Morningside Heights, but most Olympic-level swimmers are world-beaters at elite swimming institutions—12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin and 2012 star Missy Franklin swam at the University of California, Berkeley, long an aquatics powerhouse.

The road to setting Ivy records, Columbia women's swimming head coach Diana Caskey believes, began during a meet at Brown in 2012. Meili won the 100-yard breaststroke on that January afternoon in Boston, but it wasn't the narrow victory that caught Caskey's eye.

"I just had the sense there," Caskey said. "I saw her reads, and I just saw a different type of determination, and I think that's when I first sensed that there was a change happening."

Meili added a victory in the 400-yard freestyle relay in Boston, and proceeded to win five Ivy League titles that spring. The Texan also earned the Most Outstanding Swimmer of the Meet at the 2012 Ivy Championships before opting to test the Olympic waters that summer.

It was a bold move for a relatively unheralded swimmer entering the Ivy League, but then again, according to Caskey, Meili has always been fearless.

Caskey recalled how Meili broke her hand during a warm-up before the Olympic Trials in 2012. Meili opted to have surgery and wear a temporary cast that allowed her to compete in Omaha.

Meili ultimately finished 48th, unable to overcome her injury. But she returned that fall to Morningside Heights, determined to build upon a journey in competitive swimming that had begun at eight years old—almost by accident.

After her older sister had suffered an ankle injury from gymnastics, a doctor had suggested the elder Meili take up swimming, so, naturally, Katie tagged along. At the time, the younger Meili wasn't so enthusiastic about the prospect of intense practices and early wake-up calls.

"I don't know if I loved it just the first day I showed up to swim practice—I didn't know what anything was called, I didn't know how to do anything, and I think they told me to swim a 300 for warm-up, and I just started crying because that's way further than I thought I was capable of swimming."

By high school, Meili had begun to succeed in competitive swimming, with the goal of continuing in college. During her junior year, she reached the Junior National Championships, where Caskey first caught a glimpse of the future two-time All-Ivy selection.

Though she was recruited by several Ivy League-caliber schools, Meili was attracted to Columbia after an unofficial visit the spring of her junior year. An official visit later in the summer sealed the deal. Meili arrived in the fall of 2009 and began to train under Caskey, along with former assistant Michael Sabala, who was immediately drawn to the first-year.

"[During] her first season... she was the best swimmer at Columbia," he said. "She was the best one on the team pretty much from the first day she walked onto the pool deck at Columbia."

But like the average student, Meili wanted to enjoy the college experience and take in all Columbia offered: its academics, social life, and diverse student body. Swimming still wasn't Meili's top priority, and that remained the case until mid-way through her sophomore year.

She began to make sacrifices, including changing her diet, sleeping more, and not going out as frequently. Her results improved quickly, and she capped her junior season with a fifth-place finish in the 100-meter breaststroke at the NCAA Championships.

"Season by season, she sort of separated herself from the rest of the team at Columbia," Sabala said. "And then she separated herself from the rest of the Ivy League, and then she separated herself from the rest of the country, little by little."

Following another dominant Ivy season, Meili returned to NCAAs during her senior year, and finished third in the 100-meter breaststroke. She later swam in the Grand Prix and Pro Series meets sponsored by the national team.

File Photo

But even then, Meili wasn't totally committed to swimming professionally.

She had a job as a legal assistant in New York lined up, and, as Caskey explained, the path from the Ancient Eight to the professional ranks is still not often followed, especially in swimming.

It took a meeting with coach David Marsh in Charlotte to put an end to Meili's lingering uncertainty and prompt her to join Marsh's elite club team, SwimMAC Carolina.

"I don't know if he was bored or if he was in a good mood or whatever, but he invited me to come swim with his group," Meili said. "And I just said, 'Okay, I'll do it!' and didn't give him the chance to change his mind."

Meili soon moved to Charlotte to train under Marsh and live with a surrogate family. She also found a job, but the Texan still felt out of place at SwimMAC alongside Olympic stars such as Ryan Lochte and Kate Mills.

Cammile Adams, a 2012 Olympian, arrived later in 2014, and Meili became increasingly comfortable in Charlotte. Adams became her roommate and close friend, and was struck by Meili's attention to detail in the pool. According to Meili, the breaststroke—which she had only begun to really focus on in the last two years—is the slowest possible way to move through water. With Marsh's help, she developed tailored practice drills focused on arm and leg placement to make the movement as efficient as possible.

That refined technique helped Meili explode onto the scene at the 2015 Pan American Games, her first truly international competition. She claimed the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke in record time (1:05.64), and soon after—just like she had at Columbia—Meili began to change her goals.

"When I moved to Charlotte to start swimming professionally, I don't even think the Olympics was a goal in my mind," Meili said. "... It probably wasn't until my second year in Charlotte [2015] that I started thinking the Olympics would be a reality."

But before Meili could consider earning a ticket to Rio de Janeiro, she had to make the cut for Team USA at the Olympic Trials, an anxiety-inducing event that still terrifies even the most decorated athletes.

Meili promptly cruised to a second-place finish behind Lilly King to clinch an Olympic berth, seemingly immune to the immense pressure. It wasn't until weeks after qualifying for Rio that Meili echoed the sentiments of her peers.

"When I got to the pool that night (of the finals), I was so nervous I felt like I was dizzy sometimes, but I was just trying to tell myself to take in the moment, because I will never in my life feel like I felt that night again," Meili said. "There will never be, even if I swim four more years and go to another Olympic Trials; I'll never have that feeling recreated."

Now, with a spot secured on Team USA, that overwhelming sense of pressure has subsided. As Coughlin explained, Meili can focus solely on the race, and resort to her familiar routines before her Olympic debut.

"If you have qualified for the Olympic Games as an American swimmer, you have achieved such a huge, huge accomplishment already," Coughlin said. "All you have to do is continue to swim your event and stick to the routines that have made you successful in the past."

That's easy enough for Coughlin to say. She's one of the most decorated female swimmers ever, but even as Meili has noted, each Olympian must try to ignore the grandiosity of the international stage. Of course, most first-time Olympians will struggle to adapt, but Adams pointed to Meili's gold medal at the Pan American Games as an advantage over most other rookies.

"I'd never made an international meet before [the 2012 London Games], so the Olympics was my ... first meet with the national team," Adams said. "Katie had done that already, so … she definitely had a leg up on me in that kind of thing. She knows what it's gonna feel like, what the competition's gonna be like."

The competition will be fiercer in Rio de Janeiro, and the audiences will be larger. But after taking gold in 1:05.64 at the Pan American Games—which she called "almost like a dress rehearsal of the Olympics"—Meili seems quite ready for the main act. | @CUSpecSports