RICHMOND — The hours between morning prelims and evening finals are an elite swimmer’s sacred time, almost uniformly involving some combination of a large meal, a long nap and a religious avoidance of anything requiring either physical or mental effort.
But when Katie Meili, two-time Olympic medalist, slung her swim bag over her shoulder and headed for the parking lot at Richmond Aquatic Center late Thursday morning — after qualifying third in prelims for the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1:08.88 — the meal and the nap were indeed on her agenda, but she also had a sizable block of time carved out for some intensive contemplation of U.S. immigration policy.
Meili, 27, is a second-year student at the Georgetown University Law School, her life these days revolving more around constitutional theory and litigation strategy than stroke-rates and underwater pulls. The Richmond stop on the TYR Pro Swim Series is her first competition of any kind since December and her first long-course event since last summer’s Pan Pacific Championships. On Thursday night, she swam a 1:08.55 in the 100 breast final, finishing fifth, nearly two seconds behind winner Annie Lazor and 3½ seconds off her own career best.
“I know that I need to work on [gaining] speed and power in the next few weeks,” she said. “The goal was just to put my stroke together here in a long-course pool.”
On Friday, Meili will swim the 50-meter breaststroke, prelims and finals, and also file a paper, due that day for her class on national security law, on “President Trump’s Declaration of a National Emergency at the Mexican Border, and the Congressional Response.” She spent most of Wednesday afternoon working on the paper before packing two backpacks — one for her swim gear, the other for her laptop — and making the roughly two-hour drive from Georgetown to Richmond.
“I’ve been coming to meets so long now,” she said, “it took me about three minutes to pack my swim bag without forgetting anything.”
Meili, who won bronze at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the 100-meter breaststroke and gold as the breaststroke leg of Team USA’s victorious 4x100 medley relay, hasn’t retired from swimming — at least not yet — but the demands of law school have forced some difficult choices of late, which more often than not fall on the side of school instead of sport.
Her performances last summer at U.S. nationals and Pan-Pacs earned her a spot on the U.S. team for this summer’s world championships, but instead of traveling to Gwangju, South Korea, with the national team in July, she will stay back to intern at the Washington office of the Jones Day law firm and prepare for her final year of law school.
“It was a really hard decision,” Meili said of turning down the spot. “But I knew I wasn’t going to be able to give 100 percent to work and 100 percent to training. I respect the sport too much and respect my teammates and competitors too much to take a spot and show up at worlds without knowing I’m at my best. I didn’t think that was fair for me to do.”
A bigger decision awaits Meili this fall, around the time she departs her internship and returns to the Hilltop for her final year of law school. By then, she will need to decide whether to make a run at another Olympics team — the one that will head to Tokyo in July 2020. “The million-dollar question,” as Meili called it.
“I haven’t made a decision. I’m obviously still training and competing,” she said, “so I think I’m just going to get a little further forward before I have to make a decision either way. … If I choose not to do it, it’ll be for all the right reasons: It’s just time. I’ve always said I’ll keep swimming as long as I’m enjoying it and as long as I’m able. A lot of factors go into both of those prongs. But if I decide I’m not going to swim next year and I’m not going to try to make Tokyo, then I will be happy and at peace with that decision.”
In part, that’s because Meili already has gotten more out of the sport than she ever imagined possible. A late bloomer out of Colleyville, Tex., she was ignored by the bigger collegiate programs and went to Columbia University, where it took her until her junior year to make a final at the NCAA championships. She was 22 when she made her first U.S. national team and 24 when she first medaled in a major international meet, the 2015 Pan American Games.
At the Rio Olympics, where Meili was not considered a top medal favorite, U.S. teammate Lilly King, in the “ready” room minutes before the 100-meter final, told her: “Katie, in 15 minutes our lives are going to change. We can both medal. We can do this.” And that’s exactly what happened, with King winning gold with an Olympic-record time of 1:04.93 — edging Russian rival Yulia Efimova — and Meili earning bronze at 1:05.69.
At the time, Meili had been accepted to Georgetown Law and figured Rio was her farewell to elite-level swimming. But once in D.C., she began working for the school’s swim team as a volunteer assistant — “just to stay connected to the sport,” she said — and soon began jumping in the water to train with the undergrads.
“I was showing up every day, and I was like, ‘If I have time to make this work, I’m going to try it,’” she said. “So the way I look at is, I’ve gotten three bonus years out of swimming. I’ve already had the career I could have ever dreamed of — and more — and now I’m just getting to enjoy it a little longer.”
She is operating this week without a coach — “I’m my own coach these days,” she said — but as a national team member with access to USA Swimming’s high-performance video analysis and other perks. She described her morning swim in the 100 breast as “not pretty” and “kind of a rip-the-Band-Aid-off type of situation,” given her lack of competition these past six months. Her effort in the evening final, she said, was only slightly better.
“I’ve got some work to do,” she said.
And in between those swims, at her downtown hotel, somewhere among the meal and the nap, she almost certainly was the only elite-level swimmer in Richmond spending her sacred between-sessions hours examining the legal and constitutional ramifications of U.S. immigration policy. Being an Olympic medalist can open many doors, but it wasn’t going to get Meili out of this paper.