Katie Meili’s race strategy was simple: Go for it!
“There was nothing to lose,” the 2009 Fort Worth Nolan Catholic graduate said. “It was already a dream come true. So just go as fast as I could.”
One of Meili’s fastest times ever proved fast enough for the bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. After she touched the wall and looked up at the results, Meili and U.S. teammate Lilly King celebrated with a long embrace.
King won with an Olympic-record 1:04.93, leaving her rival, Russian cheater Yulia Efimova, in her wake. Efimova finished second in 1:05.50. Meili, second at the turn, finished in 1:05.69, just 0.05 slower than the personal best she swam at the Pan Am Games last year.
“Oh, my gosh, just so happy,” King said of the hug she shared with Meili. “Just seeing one of your teammates succeed like that, knowing the work she’s put in and all she’s accomplished before today.
“We were actually walking to the ready room, and I looked at her, and 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.”
It proved a great night for Team USA at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium as Americans took six of the 12 medals awarded Monday. King and Ryan Murphy won gold, Kathleen Baker nabbed silver and Meili, Conor Dwyer and David Plummer took bronze.
But Meili traveled the furthest to get on the podium in Rio. The Columbia University graduate, who grew up in Colleyville, didn’t qualify for the NCAAs until her junior year, and until three years ago, she had never made a national or junior national U.S. swimming team.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but I’ve had so much support along the way,” Meili said. “This medal belongs to so many more people than just me, and I’m really proud of them.”
Her family was proud of her, too. Meili received hugs and kisses from them after she made her way into the stands following the national anthem.
On Monday morning, Meili’s coach at Charlotte, N.C.-based SwimMAC Carolina, Dave Marsh, predicted Meili had a great swim in her. He proved clairvoyant.
Meili, though, didn’t sound as if she was as sure beforehand.
“Even in the ready room, I was telling myself….,” Meili said, trying to gather her thoughts. “Before I even swam that race, this whole experience has been a dream come true. It was just icing on the cake.”
Truth be told, a silver medal should have hung around Meili’s neck.
“I think everything happens for a reason, and I am beyond thrilled with a bronze medal, so that’s all I have to say,” Meili said, taking the high road.
Instead, Meili left King to talk the talk after swimming the swim.
The International Swimming Federation should have banned Efimova from the Olympics. The crowd at Olympic Aquatics Stadium showed their displeasure that the Russian earned reinstatement at the last minute.
Efimova served a 16-month suspension, returning 18 months ago only to test positive for meldonium earlier this year.
Cheaters never prosper, though, as King showed. But Meili was cheated out of silver and fourth-place finisher Jinglin Shi of China out of bronze.
“It’s incredible just winning the gold medal and knowing I did it clean and all my work paid off at practice and weights, everything,” King said, refusing to hide her disdain for Efimova. “Basically my whole life I’ve worked for this, and it’s just an incredible moment.”
King and Meili deserved to celebrate — for doing it the right way, albeit the hard way.