Scott Fowler

Katie Meili: The Olympic swimmer who came out of nowhere

Katie Meili really has no business at these Olympics.

At least that’s what most people would have said three years ago. At that point, Meili had never made a national or junior national U.S. swimming team. Her very good – but not extraordinary – collegiate career at Columbia was coming to a quiet end.

Meili is very smart. She has an Ivy League degree in psychology. You would figure that if she went to the Olympics in any capacity, it would be because she had figured out a way to make a business trip out of it.

And that’s what she did.

But the business is swimming.

Meili will compete starting Sunday in Brazil in the preliminaries of the women’s 100 breaststroke – the final is Monday night if she makes it that far. She may also have a role on the U.S. 4x100 medley relay later in the competition.

Meili (rhymes with “Smiley”) ranks as one of the best success stories ever for SwimMAC Carolina’s Team Elite, because Meili was not quite the caliber of athlete that Team Elite usually allows into its program.

“I’m definitely not the most talented swimmer of that bunch,” Meili said.

Said Cammile Adams, another of the six U.S. Olympians from Charlotte-based SwimMAC Carolina and also Meili’s roommate for the past 18 months: “It’s been great to see Katie’s confidence grow. When she first moved in, she was like, ‘I don’t think I even belong here.’ She was constantly trying to prove herself.”

David Marsh, Team Elite’s coach, said Meili approached him once at a swim meet in Charlotte several years ago. “Katie came up and asked if she could try out for Team Elite,” Marsh said. “She wasn’t, at that point, at the level where we would normally take her. She hadn’t been recruited by all the top schools. She was a good, but not a great, swimmer at Columbia. But something about her sparkle, her passion, made it very easy to accept her.”

Still, the coach wasn’t at all sure Meili would be making any Olympic teams.

“With a lot of the athletes, my first hope is they’ll be good contributors to the group and good role models for the kids,” Marsh said of his Team Elite squad. “If they happen to be on the Olympic trajectory, that’s a bonus. ... She was definitely the first two of those, but was she the third?”

In search of a ‘pretty ribbon’

Meili, 25, is originally from Colleyville, Texas, which sits about halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. The Meilis were not a swim family. When she tagged along with an older sister who had joined a swim team, Katie wasn’t even clear on the rules. In her first meet, Katie didn’t make the finals in a single event and finished dead last in several.

“She came up to us at the pool and said, ‘What do I need to do to get one of those pretty ribbons?’” recalled Karen Meili, Katie’s mother.

Meili and the team’s coach told Katie that she had to finish in the top eight of an event to get one. “Basically, she had to swim faster,” Karen Meili recalled. “And Katie said, ‘Oh, is that all? No one told me.’”

Quickly, the ribbons and trophies began to mount up for a young girl who early on showed the remarkable focus that is characteristic of many future Olympians.

“We saw it as a toddler, when she was a Girl Scout and going after all those badges,” Karen Meili said. “She’s always been driven. She sets her mind on something and by golly, you are not going to derail her. Sometimes I’d want to say, ‘Lighten up a little bit, Katie.’”

Grades were never much of a problem. Meili was a serious student who loved to lose herself in a book. “She’d be up in her room sometimes on a Friday night, reading ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” Karen Meili said.

Karen Meili was a flight attendant for Delta for 31 years, and the travel perks from that job meant that the Meilis traveled frequently. Katie decided she wanted to leave Texas for college. She ended up at Columbia after falling in love with the campus and New York.

“I wanted a smaller school in a bigger city, and some place where academics were at least the equal of athletics – and maybe bigger,” Katie Meili said.

She progressed steadily as a swimmer, but mostly under the radar. “I didn’t qualify for the NCAAs until my junior year,” Katie Meili said. She had two national top-5 finishes in her final two years in the 100 breaststroke, her best event. But most of the swimmers at SwimMAC could point to far more impressive collegiate results.

“It was a bit of a risk for David to take me,” Meili said.

Finding help in Charlotte

Meili’s parents – her father is an attorney – were supportive of her swimming dream. They said they would pay for her to stay in Charlotte for a year at first and then re-evaluate.

Meili found a friendly SwimMAC host family in Charlotte – Garland and Jennifer Hughes – to put her up for free in a spare room. Then she got a job, working 20 hours a week at Direct ChassisLink in Charlotte. The company provides chassis leasing and technology services to marine and domestic transportation industries. Meili worked in the human resources department.

“Katie’s work product was excellent, her great intellect on full display,” said Steve Hill, DCLI’s vice president of human resources. “ I know at times she was working on things that probably weren’t that challenging for her. But she kept her head down, remaining productive, dedicated, pleasant, respectful of others, and always completing her assignments without complaining.”

All that was fine, but Marsh was noticing something. Meili was getting better. A lot better. Micah Lawrence – an Olympian for SwimMAC in 2012 – had been killing Meili in the breaststroke in early workouts.

“I couldn’t stay within 5-6 seconds of Micah at the beginning,” Meili said.

But Meili was closing the gap. Her dedication to nutrition and strength training became a model for others to follow. Meili’s Olympic dream might actually become a reality, Marsh thought. But he believed she needed to quit her job and devote all her time to swimming starting in 2015.

Wait a minute, the DCLI people said. We kind of like having you around. What can we do to help?

Hill and Meili worked on a proposal for DCLI to become Meili’s primary sponsor, at least through Olympic Trials. Meili didn’t know the result of those talks when she came to a “town hall” meeting the company held in its Charlotte headquarters for 120 employees.

“Katie had no idea the purpose of the meeting,” Hill said. “That’s when we announced that the company would sponsor Katie. ... She was so surprised and shocked.”

‘Lightning didn’t strike’

With a sponsorship in hand, Meili moved out of the Hughes house and in with Adams. Lawrence ended up moving overseas to train for 2016, and Meili would beat her in the Olympic Trials. She beat every U.S. swimmer, in fact, except one. Needing to finish in the top two in the final in late June, Meili briefly led before finishing second to Indiana University’s Lilly King in the 100 breaststroke. She had made the Olympic squad. She hugged King and stared at the scoreboard, open-mouthed, when she saw the results.

“I’m just so grateful,” Meili said. “So many people took risks on me.”

For Marsh, Meili represents one of his own best success stories as well – he helped turn a no-name into an Olympian. But he said the work she put in was what ultimately put Meili over the top.

“It was her commitment and her diligence that put her on the Olympic team,” Marsh said. “Lightning didn’t strike. She worked very hard for a long period of time. If anyone deserved it based on how much they committed and how much they have done, it’s Katie Meili.”

The “hard work” part never surprised her mother. When Katie was 11, she wanted to start doing twice-a-day swim practices instead of just once. This would require her mother getting up at 5:30 a.m. to get her to practice. Karen Meili said “No, thanks” to that one.

“But Katie wore me down,” Karen Meili said. “I finally told her I would let her if she would wake me up to take her to practice. I didn’t want to be the one waking her up. So at 5:30 every morning I would hear this little voice: ‘Mommy? Mommy? It’s time.’”

That was Meili’s drive, in full evidence even at age 11.

Eventually, it would carry her all the way to Rio.