Trials and Tribulations: Katie Meili and Salena Huang
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
New York City is typically not known as a “swimming town.” Despite the 8 million people who reside in New York City, there is only one NCAA Division I swimming team in Manhattan – Columbia University. Katie Meili, a Texas native, and Salena Huang, a California native, are two Columbia University swimmers who have qualified for this summer’s Olympic Team Trials. Last weekend, the two swimmers were at the Columbus Grand Prix. We discussed the intense aspects of balancing academics at an Ivy League school, swimming at an elite level, and living in the concrete jungle known as Manhattan.
Why choose Columbia University?
Katie: I was obsessed with New York from a really young age. I got to campus and felt like I fit there. I met with Diana Caskey (Columbia’s head coach) and she was great, and I loved the team. I felt like that was the best place where I could continue my swimming career, but also grow as a person. It was a well-rounded place.
Salena: I chose to go to New York because balance was really important. Columbia offers really good education. The team is really supportive. Everyone is wonderful.
What’s the most difficult thing about going to Columbia?
Katie: At school, it's really intense. A lot of teachers don't really care that you're an athlete. I'm not trying to speak bad about Columbia. But they want to keep an even playing field among all students. They don't give anyone special treatment. It's hard when you have a huge meet and four or five finals, and papers due the week before. You're trying as hard as you can to get sleep, get to practice, stay on a schedule, but sometimes it's impossible. Sometimes you have to give up swimming to do school, and luckily, our coaches – Diana Caskey and Michael Sabala -- are really understanding of that.
Salena: As a freshmen, time management is really important, and it's really difficult sometimes with practices and tests. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. Swimming is a stress reliever, so that helps.
What are some tricks of the trade? Tricks for balancing schedules?
Katie: All the reading they assign -- I've learned it's impossible. Skimming works really well, and reading the introductions and conclusions of the longest papers gets you by. Gets you those participation points in class [Laughs.] That's my trick.
Salena: Taking naps in the middle of the day. [Laughs.]
You can get in a lot of trouble in NYC. Are you able to stay away from some of the temptations of the city and focus on training?
Katie: Columbia is unique and nice because it's its own little bubble in the middle of this huge city. It's almost a secluded campus, and when you walk in the campus, you don't feel like you're in the city. But you take two steps and you’re on Broadway in the Upper West Side. It's easy to stay on campus and focus on what you’re doing. My mom always said she sent me to Columbia to focus on school and not to play in the city. It’s really nice to step back and focus on what you're doing, but at the same time, you can go downtown as easily as a subway swipe and then you're in the biggest metro area.
Salena: Columbia allows you a lot of opportunities in the city. A lot of my classes incorporate being in the city. We're allowed a lot of benefits, like going to museums, and other aspects like that.
I bet you guys meet really fascinating people/students there. Will one of your classmates be President one day?
Salena: I think our group of girls are well-rounded. It's not just academics or just swimming. There are people on our team who are really talented with many other things, like photography or music.
What are you doing this summer in terms of Olympic Trials preparation?
Katie: I'm training here in NYC. I love my club team at home, but all my friends have graduated and moved on. I'm excited to stay here with the girls who are staying here and my coaches. They seem to know me as a swimmer, and it's the best opportunity for me to stay in New York.
Salena: I'm not sure. I might be going back to California to train with the Mission San Jose Aquatics, my club team.
What are you going to think about the first time you walk out on deck? The names, the media? Will it be overwhelming?
Katie: I’m going to be freaking out. I'm going to be like, “SALENA!” There's only one Olympic Trials every four years. I'm blessed I have the chance to swim there. I'm excited to swim and see what I can do.
Salena: I personally believe that that type of environment is going to make us swim that much faster. You’re going to be so excited by all the people surrounding you, the hype surrounding the meet -- it will inspire you to do amazing things.
What are your goals for the Trials?
Katie: I’d love to be top-16 and get a second swim. We'll see.
Salena: The same!
What advice do you have for high school kids who want to go to a prestigious school and swim?
Katie: Don't think you have to give up swimming to go to a top school. There are great schools that offer intense levels of swimming and training, so don't count it out. There's definitely the option to do both. It's hard, it's tough, but it makes you stronger and a more well-rounded person. I've grown a lot.
Salena: Keep studying! [Laughs.] It's important to set goals. If you have goals to set for yourself, even training goals, that can help.
What types of facilities do you have at Columbia? I live in Brooklyn, and it always seems impossible for me to find pools.
Katie: At Columbia, since it's in the middle of the city, you can't have a huge, beautiful facility. We do, but it's underground. We have a full gym, a full basketball arena. Everything. It's nice coming in and we take an elevator down to the fourth floor, where our pool is. You can leave everything that’s stressing or bugging or annoying you upstairs, you walk downstairs and it's your own safe haven. I really like training underground.
Four stories underground?
Katie: You'd think that four stories underground, it'd be a grimy, grungy place. But it has a two-story ceiling, grand stand seating. It's really nice.
Do fans get lost trying to find the pool?
Katie: The whole athletic facility is a labyrinth. [Laughs.] I still don't know it all. It's a huge sprawling building four stories underground.
Salena: I love swimming indoors. I'm from Northern California, and in the winters, it's really cold, waking up at 5am to swim outside is freezing. So it's nice swimming indoors.
What about the New York experience?
Katie: You see a lot of famous people. Jeremy Lin came to one of our basketball games. Spike Lee was there. That was last week.
Katie: Columbia was playing Harvard in men’s basketball. It was cool. You see lots of celebrities walking around. They film “Gossip Girl” on our campus a lot. Movies are filming, so you see those people. Like Salena said earlier, the school pushes us out into the city. We go to museums for free. We get cheap Broadway tickets. Eventually, the city becomes part of your life. It's not like "Oh my gosh we're in New York!" It becomes normal after a while.
Salena: Living in New York is so crazy still, because I’m a freshman and still adjusting. I meet so many different people from all parts of the world. You see the craziest people on the streets. You can do anything you want any part of the night or day. It's cool.
Is it overwhelming?
Katie: Definitely. Meeting so many people from so many different parts of the world, learning so many different cultures, being taken out of your comfort zone can be overwhelming, but you learn a lot about yourself that you would not get to if you weren't in an environment like that.
Salena: You get a little homesick. But the team is cool because you have a great support system. You never feel, "Oh, I'm so alone in this big city." You have a nice group of girls who can help you get through anything.
Are you guys best friends?
Both: YES! [Laughs.]
Katie: We're close. We spend so much time together. It's impossible not to be close.
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