Courtesy of Robert Sullivan
Sometimes you stand in regard of older folks, AARPers like yourself, like I did, earlier in this space, when contemplating Bobby Hackett. And sometimes it’s refreshing to appreciate the young folks. This is about a woman of recent renown. She won a bronze in the Rio Games and now a silver in the Budapest Worlds, both behind Lilly King. I’ve never met her.
Back in the day, I did meet a lot of swimmers as I worked for Sports Illustrated, and swimming was an occasional beat for me. Later, my kids became pretty fine junior swimmers with the Marlins team of Mount Kisco, New York, and, anyway, I never grew disinterested with the sport. But this is more about how things come around in life.
I had a friend in college, in New Hampshire, named Bill Meili. We both played tennis pretty fairly. We were both Class of ’75 at this college, and graduated on time. We did not stay in touch, and then we started to. I haven’t seen Bill in years, but we have communicated by email and an occasional phone call—he from Texas, me from Westchester County, New York. Not sure which of us first got back in touch, but that’s okay.
At one point, Bill was coming to New York City to see his daughter swim for Columbia University on a Friday night, and wondered if we might get together. He knew my kids were into swimming. I couldn’t get there and we didn’t convene. The emails and occasional phone calls resumed.
A few years on, Bill told me that Katie, who was evidently smart and headed for great things, was continuing with her swimming. Knowing what I knew from the earlier years at SI, I was intrigued and a little bothered. It’s such a tough shot, I realized. She was going for the Olympics. But Bill said she had a coach, an assistant at Columbia, who was really good, and they were planning carefully. Then she and Lilly finished 1-3 around the finger-wagging Russian, and all of us who knew Katie, or even didn’t know her really, were thrilled. A phenomenal accomplishment.
And, I assumed, her last in the pool. Then Bill and I were talking and he said Katie was still swimming and shooting for the Worlds: perhaps a last hurrah. There were at least three or four women in Indy who might pip one another for the spaces to Budapest, but sure enough Lilly and Katie, and that Yefimova, were back in the game. As we now all know, the Yanks finished one-two, Lilly setting a world record, and the other woman finished third, her finger tightly curled.
My son, Jack, and I watched the Worlds on cable and I told him Katie’s story. He was captivated, as he’s still a swimmer. He knows how hard it is. He’s hoping to go to a good school this fall, meantime rising at 5 a.m. for morning outdoor swimming with the Marlins. But that brief digression is only to say: Sometimes you follow athletes from afar, and actually get to know them better—in perspective. I told Jack, “Katie’s story reminds me of Jenny Thompson.” She was, as I remembered it for Jack, a kid from Massachusetts, like I was, and Jenny, believe it or not, once swam for the summer team at Cedardale, which we from Vesper opposed. She was younger than me, but I followed her progress as I got into sports journalism and she rose through the 1992, ’96, 2000, and ’04 Olympics. I told Jack that, as I remembered it, she had joined the Badgers, down in White Plains (a team he competes against), in order to train for her final big push while completing her medical degree in the city. She would come up to Westchester and swim, then prepare to be a doctor, which she is today in Portland, Maine. I even knew of her beating off two muggers in Boston in 2010, which you can Google and which shows you shouldn’t mess with Jenny Thompson, among the most decorated Olympians ever.
And all this brings me back to Katie Meili, daughter of my old college friend. Being a sports guy, I never anticipated that Jenny Thompson or Katie Meili could achieve these things. These things are extraordinarily hard to achieve, and I appreciate that fully. But Bill now tells me Katie is intending to go to law school in the fall and continue with her swimming. God bless her for aspiration like that (a sentiment that I presume is passed on by Jenny Thompson).
Check out the Why Do They Swim? series
- Why do they swim? Part I
- Why do they swim? Part II
- Why do they swim? Part III
- Why do they swim? Part IV
- Why fo they swim? Part V
Bob Sullivan, a former editor and writer at Sports Illustrated, is more proudly a swim dad. His elder daughter and his son have competed in recent years for the Mount Kisco Boys & Girls Club Marlins and the Horace Greeley High School Quakers, both in New York. Sullivan recently wrote a series of articles for the Greeley boosters website speculating on why his kids and all the others stick with it, and they will be reprinted here in SwimSwam by permission of the author.