BEST OF 2016 | Bronze medal thrilled Columbia’s Katie Meili
Three years ago, Ivy League grad Katie Meili had to convince herself she belonged in one of the nation’s top swim clubs.
Monday night, she got the ultimate in assurances by winning Olympic bronze in Rio.
Meili’s transformation from late-bloomer to world beater was complete when she took third behind teammate Lilly King and Russian Yuliya Efimova in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“I looked at my time and I saw third place, and my jaw just dropped,” Meili told USA Swimming. “I was so happy.”
To NBC cameras, she was a sidelight to the simmering feud between King and Efimova, a last-minute addition to the field after successfully appealing her ban in the midst of Russia’s state-run doping scandal.
King finished in an Olympic record of one minute, 4.93 seconds. Efimova, who moved ahead of Meili in the final 25 meters, was second in 1:05.50 ahead of Meili in 1:05.69.
“It just proves you can complete clean and still come out on top with all the hard work you put in behind the scenes, behind the meet, at practice and in weight sessions and there is a way to become the best and do it the right way,” King said later.
Meili had a superb start, matching or barely trailing King nearly the whole race. She even appeared to lead briefly off the turn.
“Katie has really great walls,” said Michael Sabala, her coach for three years while an assistant at Columbia, by phone from Rio where he was watching from the finish with Meili’s friends and family. “She’s almost perfect underwater. That’s not really a surprise.”
Meili missed her personal-best time by .05.
After hitting the finish wall, she and King hugged and grinned like two kids. In the stands, Sabala had to lean on Meili’s former Columbia teammate, Kristina Parsons.
“My knees were buckling,” he said. “I was shaking … That was the most exciting swimming race I’ve ever watched.”
Meili, the 2015 Pan Am Games champion, told TV cameras that just before the race King had turned to her.
“In 15 minutes our lives are going to change,” King said.
“Yeah,” said Meili. “We can do it.”
Meili remembers it only slightly differently.
“Right before we walked into the ready room and we kind of looked at each other and we both said, ‘You know what? We can both medal,’” Meili said to USA Swimming. “It was nothing more than just both of us showing that the USA is strong and we came here to compete and we came here to win medals and regardless of all the other circumstances that’s what are here to do.”
Meili, who last week signed a contract with swimwear company Speedo, is the only Ivy League alum on the U.S. Olympic swim team. She is one of only nine Ivy Leaguers to make a U.S. swim team in Olympic history, and just the second Columbia swimmer after Cristina Teuscher (2000) to win an Olympic medal. Teuscher came to Columbia with 1996 gold and after swimming for the Lions returned to the Games and won bronze in the 200-meter individual medley.
Early on, it didn’t look likely that the lightly recruited Meili, from small-town Colleyville, Texas, would be a star. Her best collegiate result was third in the NCAA championships her senior year.
After graduation, she was working a career job she loved, in human resources, when she surprised even her parents when she decided to give swimming one more try. She caught on with David Marsh’s SwimMAC-Carolina club and blossomed.