Swimming for a SEC or PAC-12 powerhouse program isn’t a prerequisite for Olympic greatness.
If you need proof, look no further than Katie Meili, a graduate of Columbia University, an Ivy League program. She is now the proud owner of an individual Olympic bronze medal in the 100 breast and a relay gold in the 4×100 medley.
What made the difference is a question she asked herself as she assessed her solid, if unspectacular, freshman season at Columbia in which she’d swam personal bests but hadn’t scored points at conference championships: “Why not me?”
That little statement stayed with Meili, providing motivation for the next several years as she climbed USA Swimming’s national rankings in the breaststroke events.
Meili’s name wasn’t on the lips of college coaches during her high school years. She enjoyed the sport, the racing and the training, but she was never set on being one of the top swimmers in the country. Instead, she describes her journey as a “slow and steady progression,” always focusing on the next rung of the ladder, instead of being intimidated by the top.
“I was not a highly-recruited athlete out of high school,” she recalls. “I made Junior Nationals as a junior in high school and got dead last. But I picked myself up and stayed focused on what was next. For me, it has always been about improving, learning and focusing on what is next.”
The late bloomer was just getting started. Instead of hitting a plateau after high school, Meili’s times improved dramatically each year, including a near seven-second drop in the 100-meter breaststroke from 2008 to 2014.
She attended Columbia University and it proved to be the perfect fit of academics and athletics for her. Even after failing to win any events at her first two conference meets, the old question came back: “Why not me?” Her coaches stoked that fire, opening her eyes to her potential. Then, as a junior, she made finals in both the 100 and 200-yard breast at NCAAs.
Having achieved those swimming laurels, Meili was ready to retire after graduation and even had a job lined up at a New York law firm. But something inside her still asked, “Why not me?” Supported by her family, coaches and friends, Meili chose to keep training and relocated to Charlotte, N.C., to work with David Marsh at SwimMac Carolina. In August, she placed third at Nationals, earning her a spot on the 2014 U.S. National Team.
Meili is already sharing her bite-sized approach to athletic success and building a skill set that helps her resonate with young athletes. “I think an important quality of a good clinician is the ability to connect with the athletes on an individual level,” she says. “When I talk to one or two athletes directly, as opposed to talking to the whole group, I notice that they become more excited to learn and more focused on the things I say. Clinicians become more of a friend invested in the athletes’ success and less of an intimidating figure telling the athletes what to do.”
Meili adds that being part of Fitter & Faster is making her fall in love with the sport all over again. “I appreciate being around all the positivity, excitement, and gratitude these swimmers bring with them to clinics,” she says. “That type of attitude is the reason I have been in this sport for 15 years and seeing it reflected in all the grassroots athletes solidifies and confirms my love of the sport.”