By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Katie Meili claimed gold at Pan Ams, and the Columbia alum, training in the breaststroke at SwimMAC now and its talented roster, has found her path with the goal being Rio in 2016. She shares her thoughts on the Pan Am experience, what it’s like attending college with some of the world’s brightest minds, and how she shuts down her constantly high-octane brain, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What a great win for you, Natalie Coughlin, Allison Schmitt and Kelsi Worrell at Pan Ams – how amazing was that?
Katie: First of all, thank you. It was really an incredible experience. I was texting my mom earlier in the day when we found out what the relay was that night. This was something I thought was out of my dreams, coming off of Natalie Coughlin in the backstroke! It was a very special moment to swim on that relay, especially with Kelsi who was also a rookie and then a great veteran Olympian like Allison Schmitt. I was able to learn so much from Allison and Natalie, and it gave Kelsi and me some great experience.
2. So you took something that will help you potentially with bigger meets ahead?
Katie: It definitely did a lot – it was a great experience. And the crowd in Toronto was incredible. Toronto did a great job with the Games and filling the stands. Of course, they were mostly cheering for Canadians, but that’s how it should be – just a really great and engaged and loud crowd. You want that at an International meet, especially when it’s at the end of the season and you’ve worked for it all year. On top of that, to have a crowd like that made you really focus on what you were doing. You saw a lot of starts messed up, so you get to learn how to handle all that excitement.
3. How did you end up in the Ivy League at Columbia?
Katie: When I was looking at where I wanted to go to school, I had very specific criteria: I was seeking a small school that everyone had heard of in a big city. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Texas even though we have so many great universities back home. I wanted to experience new things and do something different. I was focused on the east coast. I looked at several schools but once I stepped on Columbia’s campus, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. Everyone there has something to teach you, something they can share with you that will help you develop as a learner and thinker.
4. Was it pretty cool to join a lot of other outstanding students?
Katie: I really haven’t thought of it in that way. I mean, school was always important to me – something that I love, something I liked doing. There were so many people at Columbia much smarter than me, doing just incredible things. Everyone there is unique, and special. Swimming at a high level and with school work, I just felt like I belonged and fit in there.
5. Was it intimidating at all?
Katie: I have always enjoyed school so while it was certainly challenging it was never something I was afraid of or worried I couldn’t handle. I love learning, and in that environment it was very motivating.
6. While you’re on the National Team in the 100 breaststroke, it seems like your 200 is competitive, and you’ve even had success in the 200 IM and the 100 free – are those options as well?
Katie: I definitely think the focus is specifically the 100 breaststroke though I’m not entirely ruling out the 200 (breaststroke). I do enjoy training IM or freestyle or fly – all of that keeps my mind from becoming bored!
7. That splitting it up thing really helps?
Katie: Yes. I also think there’s a lot to be said for training other events because training IM makes my 200 breaststroke better, and then training 200 breast makes my 100 breast better. And training freestyle makes my sprint breaststroke better. But in terms of race strategy and technique, my focus is more on the 100 breaststroke.
8. You get to train with one of the greatest swim coaches in history, David Marsh – what’s that like?
Katie: When I came here I knew it was going to be an adventure – an exciting new part of the journey. I didn’t know what to expect. And with David, that’s what makes him so good – you don’t always know what to expect. He constantly keeps us on our toes. We might climb ropes or do crazy stuff on land that works into the pool. We’re never bored, and we have to constantly be engaged. We use a slide sometimes, and you don’t “just slide” on it. He uses it to keep your body aligned just as you would in a race. So while I might have seen it and thought “toy kids play on” initially, David’s face was lighted up seeing it as a way to make us better. That kind of approach and thinking – that creativity – has helped me a ton with my swimming, and made me faster.
9. You went from impressive career at Columbia to vaulting onto the National Team and now internationally with gold – was all that in your mind when you made the move to SwimMAC?
Katie: I definitely don’t think I would’ve made the decision if didn’t think it was possible. At the same time, I don’t know that I thought about all of this happening, if that makes sense. That is, I knew I had it in me, but I never knew if I’d reach my potential – take it to its fullest. I don’t know that I would have expected to win gold at Pan Ams and go this fast already – yet at the same time I knew I was capable of it. We all have “potential,” and there is still a long way to go for me – I don’t know if everyone reaches their so-called full potential – but it’s coming together nicely.
10. I recently had a job interview in North Carolina and was just so impressed with Charlotte – I had no idea what it would be like – what’s your impression being from Texas and having gone to college in NYC?
Katie: It’s a great city. It’s been an interesting change, from Dallas suburbs to New York City and then to Charlotte – which is a little bit of everything yet its own thing. I love that it is sort of a big city with a small-town feel and a strong sense of community. It’s a slower pace of life than New York, but I have come to appreciate that, to slow down and take the time to appreciate what you are experiencing and what’s in front of you.
11. You swim with these amazing champions including Ryan Lochte, Cammile Adams, Cullen Jones and so many others – what’s that like?
Katie: It’s funny because when you say it like that…I really just think of these people as my friends. I get to swim with some really accomplished athletes. But it’s more amazing when I get to hear them at a clinic or in a good presentation, just listening to how smart and articulate they are – that’s what blows me most away with them. They are all geniuses in their own way. Hanging out with them is great, and as friends they are as good as it gets. But when I can step back outside of that circle and see them in action, I realize how incredibly lucky I am to be here and learn from them.
12, What’s Ryan Lochte like?
Katie: Ryan’s a blast. He’s so talented in the water, but at the same time such a character in life. He makes everyone laugh. I think he’s one of the nicest and most generous people I have met in my life. He’ll go all in for his teammates, friends and family. I don’t know a lot of people with that much success who are like that – so selfless and giving. It’s rare to see that.
13. Who else do you train with?
Katie: I train with Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace even though she’s freestyle and I’m breaststroke. Cammile and Emma (Reaney), and Kathleen Baker, are great to train with, too. Everyone’s special so it’s hard to say one person is more special than other – they all mean a lot to me in their own way. This takes me back to Columbia where everyone has something to add to the group. Part of the challenge is learning what you can from different people – even different ways of learning.
14. Cammile Adams – Texas A&M – from Cypress (near Houston), nice to have another Texan with you?
Katie: Cammile and I are very close, we live together. We spend a lot of time watching TV, or just me on the couch and she’s on the chair. Our Texas connection goes way back. Even though we swam in different circles we have a lot of mutual friends, some of whom are not involved in swimming in the slightest. She’s another one who always thinks about others and is very selfless – her big thing is making sure everyone is happy and loving life.
15. And yet with the similarities in your journeys, they are very different?
Katie: Absolutely, and it’s fun to sit down with people and talk about our journeys. My sister is five years older than me and went there (to Texas A&M), so I’ve had some of those gaps filled in by Cammile. Our colleges were in two different worlds, so we really get to learn a lot from each other.
16. I look at Simone Manuel, Natalie, you, Cammile and so many great female swimmers from Texas these days – why is that?
Katie: Well, first of all, when you (laughs) come from Texas you have to be good at what you do! On a practical level, part of it is the resources the state puts into the sport; most people I know in Texas swam at some point in their life, from lessons and summer leagues to their high schools. There is a large number of pools in Texas and the facilities are incredible.
17. And is that still going strong?
Katie: It is. Every time I go home I am amazed to see what my club team has and is doing with it. These young people have incredible facilities and coaching and other resources at their fingertips, and their parents understand what being a swimmer can do for their life. So I think Texas putting so much into swimming is what has given a lot of young people the opportunity to be successful in swimming, and then it grows when people see what their friends are doing with swimming and they want to be involved. Credit Texas communities for recognizing that and investing in it.
18. You going so far away to college and then to SwimMAC – where does that fearless explorer mentality come from?
Katie: Absolutely, it comes from my Mom – she went to Texas Tech, by the way. She worked as a flight attendant so we were lucky enough to travel when we were young. That made me curious and fascinated with other ways of doing things. So when I had a chance to choose where I wanted to go to college, I wanted to go to a new and exciting place that could shape me moving forward in ways I had not yet experienced. I can’t think of a better place for me than New York. I learned things even my first year that I had never heard of growing up. And the people I met were just as excited to learn about Texas from me. Going to Columbia had a huge part in helping me evolve into who I am becoming, and will continue to shape me as I move forward into the rest of my life.
19. This might be a stupid question, but not winning NCAAs or having the big breakthrough, how did you decide to go pro and stick with swimming – how did you know you had so much more in you?
Katie: I don’t think that’s a stupid question at all. And in fact it was a huge decision for me, and at the time (laughs) very scary! I didn’t know if I was good enough to keep going, to swim professionally; I had never made the National Team. I had done all right at the national level, but I had never done anything else. I had a voice inside me that kept saying, “You are good enough. You are capable. You just have to find a way.”
20. Isn’t that ironic because you have this incredibly logical brain that can make sense of everything but you decide to go off the board and against the so-called data in this case, right?
Katie: It’s crazy because the logical side of me knew I had a degree from a great school and there were options I could explore. But I had to go with my heart and go with my passion and determination. I knew I could do it. It was a huge leap of faith. My coaches, teammates and my family all believed in me and pushed me to take this route. So I put that logical voice in my head aside – which I normally would never do! And I am happy I did it.