Swimmer Katie Meili completes journey from Ivy League to Olympic medalist

Gold medal winner Lilly King, left, of the United States celebrates with bronze medal winner Katie Meili after the final of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke on Monday night. Meili trains at SwimMAC Carolina.
Gold medal winner Lilly King, left, of the United States celebrates with bronze medal winner Katie Meili after the final of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke on Monday night. Meili trains at SwimMAC Carolina. AP

Katie Meili finished off an improbable journey from Ivy League swimmer to Olympic medalist Monday night, winning a bronze medal in the women’s 100 breaststroke.

Meili’s third-place finish put her on the podium with another American – gold medalist Lilly King. “Before I even swam that race,” said Meili, “this whole experience has been a dream come true. It was just icing on the cake.”

Originally from Texas, Meili graduated from Columbia with a psychology degree and then moved to Charlotte three years ago to join SwimMAC Carolina’s Team Elite. She questioned whether she belonged for awhile, having trouble keeping up with other team members who had far better results than she did.

But it turned out Meili could outwork just about anyone. And it also turned out Meili belonged in that pool, and the Olympic one, too.

For much of America, Meili was only a subplot Monday. Her race was billed as a vintage Cold War battle between American Lilly King and convicted Russian drug cheat Yulia Efimova. King, a brash teenager, has made no secret that she believes Efimova – who was originally banned from these Olympics because of her past doping conviction – should not have swum in the race.

King had told NBC Sunday night: “You’re shaking your finger ‘No. 1,’ and you’ve been caught for drug cheating,” King said. “I’m not a fan.”

Neither were many of the fans at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, as Efimova was loudly booed during introductions.

King, who also won the U.S. Olympic Trials over Meili, then beat both Meili and Efimova (who got the silver medal) in the race, winning by more than half a second. Afterward, King snubbed Efimova – who was in the next lane – and swam directly over to congratulate Meili.

What does it feel like to make the Olympic team and represent America in Rio? Cammile Adams, Kathleen Baker, Anthony Ervin, Jimmy Feigen, Ryan Lochte and Katie Meili share their thoughts about traveling to Rio to compete for Team USA. All six trai

‘Victory for clean sport’

In a tense news conference afterward, Meili was the neutral ground between King on one side and Efimova on the other. Meili never got involved in the battle herself as King kept throwing verbal grenades and Efimova – her voice often cracking as she alternated between English and Russian – kept defending herself.

“I do think it was a victory for clean sport,” King said of her gold medal, “just to show you can do it while competing clean your whole life.”

“I can’t understand what’s going on,” Efimova said. “This is unfair.”

‘Yeah, we can do this’

But for Meili, the swimming Cold War that was only a subplot to her own race.

“I was pretty confident,” Meili said. “I felt like it was going to click tonight. I was feeling good in warmup, feeling good and calm all day and just felt like it was going to come together at the right time. And it did.”

Katie, in 15 minutes our lives are going to change.

Lilly King to Katie Meili, shortly before both won Olympic medals for the U.S. Monday night.

Said King of the performance by Meili: “We were actually walking to the ready room and I looked at her. I said, ‘Katie, in 15 minutes, our lives are going to change. We can both medal. We can do this.’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ It’s such an awesome moment between the two of us, and knowing she got that bronze is just so great for the sport and the USA.”

Afterward, the two celebrated together after two American flags were raised and the national anthem was played. Meili earned her bronze medal 25 minutes after her close friend Kathleen Baker, also of SwimMAC, won a silver in the 100 backstroke.

“Katie is like a sister to me,” Baker said. “I’ve been swimming with her almost every day since I was 16. ... We’ve been roommates in training camp and actually have spent most of the past month attached at the hip. Watching this after all the work she put in – it’s just incredible.”

So forgive Meili if she didn’t want to get much involved in the war of words between the first- and second-place finishers Monday night. She was just so happy to be there – at the Olympics, on the podium and with a medal hanging around her neck.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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