This column ran in the fall issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country.
This year’s Olympics in Rio had special meaning for me. How exciting to cheer for and see someone on the medal podium I knew! The last time I saw Katie Meili was the day after Christmas, 2014. We rang the doorbell and were greeted by Karen my friend from Delta, and Rio the chocolate lab rescue dog. Responding to Karen’s sweeping arm motion that the door was not for him, Rio retreated to a room with the lit tree and evidence of a family Christmas still under it. Karen’s daughter, Katie appeared — a slender, beautiful young woman with big brown eyes. She certainly wasn’t the little girl that I remembered from my airlines days with her mom.
It was her older sister’s fault that Katie got involved in swimming. Maureen broke her ankle on the trampoline she had for gymnastics. First came a cast and then the orthopedic specialist suggested joining a swimming team for her rehabilitation. Karen was relieved; swimming was a much safer sport. Typical of younger siblings, Katie tagged along – she wanted to do anything Maureen did! Katie proved to be a natural once she got the hang of swimming. And with her ability, came classes and lots of hours of practice. Karen chimed in, “Remember the place that wanted you there for 5:30am swim classes?!?!?” She quickly followed with, “Oh sorry, this is your interview…” Katie smiled at the woman she knew had made lots of monetary and career sacrifices to help her “Dream big… Execute well. “
The Columbia graduate who sat across the table from me was now a professional swimmer. Her goal was to be in Rio in 2016, but that was a year and half away and she knew from experience, things can happen to delay a goal. Fate had already stepped in right before the 2012 Olympic Trials. During warmups while pushing off the wall, her hand got caught on another swimmer. “I think I hurt my hand.” Sure enough, x-rays showed the bone had snapped. Katie displayed her right hand and described a piece inside. I held up my left arm with my Titanium rod showing through. I knew without asking — there had been no London Olympics for Katie.
Katie’s face lit up when I asked about her college years. “Columbia – I wanted East Coast. It was a small school in a big city! “ Ivy League, just like her dad who went to Dartmouth. She majored in Psychology and of course made her mark with swimming. After graduating in 2013, she was invited to North Carolina to train at SwimMAC with David Marsh. Once getting settled in, she worked part-time for Direct ChassisLink, Inc. who currently sponsors her.
The pool where she practices is also where NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson swims. “Really?!?” This racing enthusiast wanted more details. “He swims with us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I am in awe of him,” she responded. NASCAR sharing the same turf as some of the most elite swimmers in the world! “You like any other sports?” I asked. “I like the Cowboys and Mavs…. and I’m a HUGE Red Sox fan.” Bingo! Sox are my team too. We shared high fives.
Fast forward to 2016. Katie has been travelling the world competing as a pro– winning titles and setting a record or two. I had lunch with Karen in July. Olympics Trials for Rio were coming up. “I think she has a shot to make it,” Karen whispered. Days later the text, “She made it!!” And boy did she ever!! I loved the media hype at Rio about the swimmer named Meili. “Where did she come from?” they were writing and saying. They found out soon with the 100m Breaststroke. In prelims, Katie tagged the wall right after Lilly King, also on the USA team. In the finals, Katie was edged out nineteenth hundreds of a second by silver medalist, Yulia Efimova. The Russian had previously failed two drug tests – don’t get me started!!
Yes … the family dog, a chocolate lab named Rio and Katie Meili with an Olympic Bronze medal draped around her neck in Rio. It’s only fitting.