By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Photos courtesy of Columbia Athletics
It’s every swimmer’s worst nightmare.
Unfortunately, for one of our “Trials and Tribulations” athletes we’ve been following the past few months, the nightmare happened.
Katie Meili was less than four weeks out from the Olympic Trials. The biggest meet of her life. She was training well. Her times in practice were faster than she’d been all summer. Earlier this spring at Columbia University, the junior finished a remarkable college season placing 5th at the NCAA Championships in the 100 breaststroke. Even more impressive, she was the only swimmer from her school to go.
On the first day of the Santa Clara Grand Prix a few weeks ago, Meili was warming up. Typical stuff. Swim. Turn. Push off. Swim. Except this time, when she pushed off the wall, her fingers caught the hip of another swimmer. The Santa Clara pool is shallow enough for swimmers to stand near the wall. Another swimmer was standing, resting, trying to avoid other swimmers, playing aquatic Frogger. Katie Meili pushed off the wall and bumped into him. Jammed her finger. Happens all the time.
So she kept warming up. But there was pain.
Something was wrong.
“I pushed off into a guy’s hip. My fingers got caught,” Meili said. “I got out and said, ‘I think I broke my hand.’”
For the rest of the meet, Meili competed. But she swam slow. There was still pain in her hand. Pain where she smashed into the swimmer during warm-ups. Pain where she caught her fingers. Pain where she rotated the bones. Each race at that Grand Prix, Meili swam slower and slower. How could this be? After her intense training? Just weeks before the Olympic Trials -- swimming’s hallowed and revered pinnacle of sport?
“I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t swimming well, but I felt like my hand wasn’t a problem. We had practice on Monday morning,” Meili says. “I pulled myself together and practiced.”
After that practice, after nothing got better, after icing didn’t improve the pain, Meili saw a doctor. That doctor told Meili what every swimmer never wants to hear. Any swimmer’s worst nightmare, like a phone call in the middle of the night. Shocking words that make the world topsy-turvy in a sport where everything is literal and quantifiable. 21 days before the Olympic Trials, Meili broke her hand and she needed surgery.
Shades of Four Years Ago
This story might sound familiar. In 2008, at the Olympic Trials, another well-educated, well-spoken swimmer, Emily Silver, had already made the Olympic team. She signed up for a final swim on the last day in the 50m freestyle. When she hit the wall, however, she broke her hand. Sound similar? Silver recovered to ultimately compete a few weeks later at the 2008 Olympics, enduring some of the hardest physical and mental hurdles athletes can endure.
Four years later, within our particular story, coincidences abound. Katie Meili had almost the exact same injury as Emily Silver. By sheer serendipity, Meili saw the same doctor that Silver saw in 2008, Dr. Jeffrey Yao of Stanford University. Just one day after the diagnosis, on June 5th, Meili underwent surgery on her broken hand. She was bed-ridden for a few days, and of course, done with swimming. She couldn’t even touch water until four days later. The physical hurdles were significant, sure, but the mental hurdles were formidable.
Or, as Meili more accurately phrases it: “After the surgery is when some of the meltdown happened.”
Any swimmer can tell you that at a certain level, at a certain point, by the time you are one of the .01% best in the nation, the sport becomes mental. A battle of the mind. It’s that old quote, “Swimming is 90% mental.” Imagine training your entire life, then breaking your hand 21 days before the biggest meet of your career. Would you freak out? Fall into depression? Quit? Or would you stand and fight back?
“When I went to the doctor to have the first check, I realized how little I could move it. Then I was pretty nervous.”
Then she fought back.
Getting Back on Track
When we started following athletes for our “Trials and Tribulations” series, we anticipated there would be hiccups and twists. That’s what happens when you follow athletes several months before a specific event. Things happen. But we never could have predicted one of the swimmers we followed would suffer an injury like this.
“The injury affected the whole plan. [My coaches and I] had to get creative,” Meili says. “The harest part was to keep going. I think that’s the hardest part. You never know what to expect. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you plan. But you have to re-think it and find a way.”
After her injury, Meili started swimming again. Did cardio. Kicked. But it took time. She had to keep faith and keep a positive mindset. Gradually, she was back in the water. Back swimming. She started with the kicking. Eventually she could pull. And just last weekend, Meili says that she’s finally back to normal. Back to where she was pre-injury.
“This past weekend I finally felt back to normal,” Meili says. “But I don’t think I’ll come down in yardage until a day or two before I leave for Trials. Which is sad [laughs] since I’m missing all the taper fun.”
For this week’s “Can’t Miss Race,” while I’m sure the Phelpses and Lochtes and Coughlins will provide thrilling races to stand and cheer, I’m picking a different race to watch at the 2012 Olympic Trials. It won’t determine Olympic gold. It probably won’t even determine an Olympic roster spot. But to me, it’s a race not-to-be-missed. The race that I know means so much for one particular athlete.
“It could have been a leg, or my whole arm,” Meili says. “So many worse things could have happened. When it all comes down to it, a hand is not as important as my whole leg. If something bad were to happen, this is the ‘best bad thing’ that could have happened.”
She adds: “It’s more nerve wracking because I’m not as sure what to expect. But at the same time, I’m determined to do well because this happened.”
In the women’s preliminary heats of Meili’s first event at Trials, the 100m breaststroke, I’ll be cheering for the one swimmer who wouldn’t give up. The one swimmer who represents what all our “Trials and Tribulations” athletes stand for.
The swimmer who endured a busted hand to be here. To swim. To compete. To race alongside the nation’s best.
No matter what.