Columbia University alum Katie Meili’s disbelief at making the Olympic team was clear shortly after she finished second in the 100-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in June in Omaha.
She looked at the scoreboard once, then twice. One minute, 6.07 seconds. The sixth-fastest time in the world this year, behind Lilly Kim’s 1:05.20. But it was the “2” that mattered most – top two earned a trip to Rio.
“I was ecstatic, then I thought, ‘Oh, I need to check that again,” she said in a video interview by SwimSwam Magazine. “My vision sucks.”
Meili was referring to her eyesight. But her vision – one that saw her quit a career job she loved to give swimming at the Olympics one more try – is just fine, thank you.
Meili, 25, is a late bloomer. A better-than-most swimmer in college, her breakthrough season internationally didn’t come until last year, when she won gold in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Pan American Games in Toronto. She didn’t make her first senior national team until after college.
Meili is the only Ivy League swimmer to qualify for the 2016 Games. Ivy League Olympians usually come in niche sports like crew, fencing and water polo. But in swimming, a sport for the masses, Olympic berths usually go to swimmers from powerhouse programs like Stanford, Texas and Cal.
She is the first Columbia swimmer to qualify for the Olympics since Cristina Teuscher (class of 2000). Teuscher, Columbia’s most-famous swimmer, came to campus having already pocketed Olympic gold in the 1996 Games. She returned to the Games in 2000 and won bronze in the 200-meter individual medley.
Meili wasn’t a phenom in high school.
“Most of the best swimmers in college were the best swimmers (nationally) at 14,” said Columbia then-assistant coach Michael Sabala. “Katie wasn’t even in the top 100. She just needed more time.”
Head coach Diana Caskey said Meili, who began swimming at age 8, only started taking swimming seriously her junior year at Columbia. By the end of her senior year, she had placed third in the NCAAs in her specialty, the 100-yard breaststroke, and seventh in the 200-yard individual medley.
After graduating in 2013 and a failed attempt to make the 2012 Olympics at trials, Meili got a job working in human resources for DCLI, a car and truck chassis company. She loved it. Everyone, including her parents, thought swimming was over.
But Meili decided she hadn’t reached her potential. Even her parents, who said they had always been supportive, were surprised.
“She said to us, ‘I think I want to try this,’” said her mother, Karen. “We said, ‘Huh? You’ve got a really nice job lined up.’ It was an interesting time.”
It got more interesting with a stroke of luck: an invitation from David Marsh, the renowned swim coach, to train with his Charlotte-based elite club SwimMAC. The club counts Olympic medalists Ryan Lochte, Anthony Ervin and Tyler Clary as members. Sabala suspects Marsh needed a training partner for another breaststroker on the club.
“Swimming-wise, I would say she was very average, so she didn’t stand out at all in the water,” Marsh told Columbia College Today magazine. “She just worked hard every day and came in with a smile.”
Her college coaches knew her as a gritty swimmer willing to compete in events outside her specialty to help the team, including the grueling 200 and 400 individual medleys.
“He takes the cream of the crop,” Caskey said. “We were lucky he was willing to take a chance on her.”
Swimming at an Ivy League school like Columbia is different.
First of all, Columbia, in the heart of New York City, has its athletic department and pool on campus. Or rather, under it – swimmers take an elevator four stories underground to the pool.
Ivies offer rigorous academics and no athletic scholarships. The league promotes balance between schoolwork and sports. That translates to few breaks when you miss school for competition or training.
“You have some professors that are sympathetic,” Casker said. “With others it’s ‘Nope, you’re just a regular student.’”
Meili, who graduated with a psychology degree (summa cum laude), won Columbia’s award for top student athlete of all sports, rewarding academic and athletic achievement.
“She had to do everything you could possibly think of that was outside of the model of Ivy League (athletics),” said Sabala. “You don’t get to the Olympics on proportionality and balance. You get there with singlemindedness and focus. She’s not the kind of person who would ask for an extension or a break.”
The adventurous daughter of a flight attendant – Karen Meili said she and her husband, Bill, would sometimes take their girls on spur-of-the-moment trips to San Francisco or Miami for, say, dinner – Meili embraced her move from small town (Colleyville, Texas, pop. 24,500) to New York.
Sabala said Meili making the Olympic team was not a big surprise to him. Her saw her doggedness after the 2012 trials, where her best finish was 48th in the 100-meter breaststroke, partly due to lost fitness after suffering a broken hand three weeks before trials. It was a freak accident — she inadvertently struck another swimmer during warmup laps at a meet. The injury required surgery to install plates in her hand.
The day after trials, while most swimmers dealt with celebratory hangovers or profound disappointment, she and Sabala drove around Omaha and found an open lane at a Jewish Community Center pool. Meili swam 10,000 meters in an “impressive” practice, Sabala said.
Meili didn’t know if she would continue to swim past that year, yet, “she was willing to do more at day 1 of that four-year cycle than anyone,” he said.
Caskey said she believes Meili can win an Olympic medal in Rio.
“Olympic trials are the hardest meet ever,” she said. “Katie is such a great racer… (and it) wasn’t her best trials.”
Said Sabala of the late-bloomer: “She’s still not at her peak.”
Even when she didn’t know how magical her unexpected career would become, Meili sounded grateful for her college choice – both school and swimming.
“I always say that if I hadn’t come to Columbia, I wouldn’t have gotten this good at swimming,” she said in a senior-year interview appearing on the school’s website. “It was definitely hard when all your friends are going out, and they can stay up as late as they want, and they can eat whatever they want… when I had to go to bed because I was exhausted or I had practice the next morning… It’s a hard sacrifice when you are going through it, but it’s so worth it in the end.”
Hughes, 23, the Brit who crossed an ocean to attend college and became the youngest player on the men’s national team, will likely continue as team captain in Rio, where rugby returns to the Games after last being played in 1924, when the U.S. won its second consecutive gold in a 15-a-side tournament. Sevens is the arena-football version, with more emphasis on speed and shorter games, with two seven-minute halves.
The speedy, high-scoring Doyle, 25, is a national team stalwart who has been slowed recently by injury, playing infrequently in just two of five matches in this season’s international series.
Also named to the women’s team was Jessica Javelet, 31, former field-hockey assistant coach for St. Joseph’s University from 2011-13. A national team coach discovered her while Javelet was playing for the U.S. Women’s Football Alliance, where she played after a pro field hockey career in Europe. Javelet, a field hockey star at the University of Louisville, was named to the U.S. national development squad but failed to make the Olympic field hockey team for the 2008 Games.
Brian Baker, former student and coach at Belmont University, is ranked No. 546 in the world in tennis. But as of Friday, he’s an Olympian.
Baker, 31, was named one of four singles players to the U.S. Olympic team. Tennis’s “protected ranking,” system, which helps players who miss time due to injury, helped better his ranking when it came to Olympic consideration. So did the fact that top players John Isner and Sam Querrey, said they would not play.
Steve Johnson, Denis Kudla and Jack Sock are the other men’s singles players, and Mike and Bob Bryan were named as a doubles team. For women, Venus and Serena Williams, along with Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and the doubles team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and CoCo Vandeweghe were selected.