Colleyville swimmer Katie Meili is headed to the U.S. National Championships after taking home two gold medals at the Pan American Games.
The Nolan Catholic High School graduate won last month as part of team USA’s 4x100-meter medley relay squad and took home an individual gold in the 100-meter breaststroke.
In the preliminary round of the event, Meil’s time of 1:05.64 set a Pan Am record. It was also the second fastest time this year.
Meili called the performance a “breakthrough” in her still-young career as a professional swimmer.
The Pan Am Games are like a dress rehearsal for the Olympics to many swimmers. Athletes from 41 countries attend. There’s an athlete village, an opening ceremony and a closing one. It’s perhaps the biggest non-Olympics stage there is for swimmers.
And to think none of it — the professional career, the gold medals at the Pan Am Games, and now the Olympic aspirations — almost happened for the 24-year-old.
In the spring of her senior year at Columbia University, Meili was wrestling with what she wanted to do following graduation, vacillating between trying to go pro in swimming or picking a more traditional career path.
Meili was about to get her degree in psychology from the Ivy League school and had a job lined up in New York City as a legal assistant at a law firm.
But swimming beyond college appealed to her, too. Meili had improved each year at Columbia and was passionate about it. She knew she was good. The problem in her mind, though, was that she wasn’t sure she could ever be anything more.
“I was a good swimmer but I wasn’t necessarily great and I didn’t think I was good enough to be a professional athlete,” Meili said. “My parents and my coaches and my really close friends probably believed in me more than I believed in myself at the time. They all really believed in me and saw potential that I didn’t really see in myself. I kind of just took a leap of faith and trusted them.”
That trust mixed with some courage helped her land in Charlotte, N.C., with a group of professional swimmers known as Team Elite.
There, Meili could focus solely on her craft while training alongside athletes such as Olympic gold medalists Ryan Lochte and Natalie Coughlin under the tutelage of legendary coach David Marsh.
The daily training consists of two to four hours in the water and another two to three out of it. But that, combined with the friendly competition that came with swimming alongside some of the sport’s best, helped Meili get faster.
“There are not a lot of environments in swimming where as a professional post-graduate athlete you have a lot of people around you doing the same thing,” Meili said. “Our coach has created a place where a bunch of people with the same goals in mind — that are around the same age, that are striving for the same thing — can all train together. It’s a pretty special place.”
Starting Thursday, Meili will compete in the national championships in San Antonio. The meet is one of the last big events scheduled for this year.
Shortly after finishing up in San Antonio, Meili and her Team Elite teammates will start gearing up for the Olympic Trials, which in June 2016.
In order to make it to Rio De Janeiro, Meili will need to finish first or second at the Olympic Trials. She plans to swim the 200-meter breaststroke, 200-meter individual medley and the 50-meter freestyle there. Her best chance to make the U.S. Olympic team is in the 100-meter breaststroke, though.
Meili said she knows she will have to build off her success at the Pan Am Games if she hopes to swim next summer at the Olympics. And while Meili acknowledges that a lot can happen in a year, the swimmer who once wondered whether she could be great sounds confident in herself.
“It was definitely a breakthrough,” Meili said, reflecting on her Pan Am performance. “But at the same time it’s definitely something I’ve known I’m capable of for a long time now.”
USA Swimming National Championships
Thursday-Monday, San Antonio