Olympian Katie Meili, all smiles in retirement, keeps busy with local public service

September 18, 2019

Keegan Bales

A Friday morning swim lesson isn’t a big deal. Unless, of course, it’s taught by an Olympic gold medalist.

Unless the pool is the only one of its kind east of the Mississippi River. Unless it stands for something much larger and more necessary than obvious at first blush, something worth bringing an Olympian to help showcase, especially one as magnetic and thoughtful as Katie Meili.

If you’re a casual swimming fan, you may not immediately remember Meili — after all, she’s not even the most famous Katie in professional swimming around these parts. She won a relay gold medal and an individual bronze at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, but she is perhaps best known for her surprise reaction to making the Olympic Team.

That pure, unbridled joy on her face would come again with her individual Olympic bronze medal and her second place finish at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest.

That attitude isn’t the only thing that makes Meili particularly well-suited for this swim lesson — a morning’s worth of them, in fact — at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Southeast D.C. She’s also a third-year Georgetown Law student who does work with the Juvenile Justice Clinic, which provides free legal services for youth in D.C.

She retired from competitive swimming this summer, but that doesn’t mean she’s abdicated what she feels is her responsibility as an ambassador for the sport.

“It’s nice, now that I’m not competing, I have more time to do this piece of it,” she told WTOP between sessions in the water last week. “Which I’m excited about doing this year and next year, as the Olympics come around and people get really excited about swimming.”

The pool at Eagle Academy is a rare facility for such a school. In fact, it’s the only pre-K to third grade school with a pool on campus in the Eastern United States.

An oft-cited Center for Disease Control study from the years 1999-2010 found that African-Americans aged 5-19 drowned at a rate 5.5 times higher than white children in America. A school like Eagle Academy — which serves children from Wards 6, 7 and 8, the latter two of which are both more than 92% African American — saw itself uniquely situated to offer a public service.

“Our founder knew there was a void in the community, especially with children in this community, that there was a need for them to learn how to swim,” said Karen Maria Alston, chief marketing officer at Eagle Academy.

“She was very concerned that they were not learning the critical thinking skills that come with swimming. Because swimming teaches you how to think, how to deal with conflict, how to deal with challenges.”

It’s too early to know if any of Eagle Academy’s graduates will go on to swim competitively in high school and beyond; the oldest students are still just middle schoolers. While Alston would be thrilled to see that happen, this is about far more than swimming competitively.

“For us, this is a life skill,” she said.

Principal Clifford Owens is in his first year in charge, but has already seen the impact of the pool on his students.

“It’s kind of therapeutic for them,” he said. “It’s really part of our enrichment program.”

Every student swims for 50 minutes a day, two to three times a week. The school employs three full-time staffers as instructors and lifeguards, along with a consultant who trains them in CPR and first aid. The investment is made with the intent to make sure that every student knows how to swim by the end of third grade.

Owens said he hasn’t received a deluge of interest just yet, but he thinks Eagle Academy could pave the way for other elementary schools to buy into the importance of teaching swimming.

“I think this will set a trend for other pre-K schools. You’ll probably see it coming a couple years from now,” he said.

But Friday morning was all about the present, for the kids and for Meili. It was actually the first time she’d really been back in the water in a couple months, since announcing her retirement from competition at age 28.

She was approached by the D.C. Trident professional swim team about swimming for them this fall, and while the temptation to join was strong, she’s more focused on her academic and professional future.

“I thought really long and hard about it,” she said, noting one of the other three U.S. teams in the league is in her hometown of Dallas. “I knew I couldn’t give 100 percent to both.”

While Meili doesn’t have an exact long-term plan in the legal field, she’s already got a corporate litigation position lined up after graduation, followed by a prestigious clerkship for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Back in the pool Friday, all of that could wait.

“The kids are amazing. They had the biggest smiles on their faces, which is wonderful to see around a pool,” she said.

“It’s a good way to spend a Friday morning.”

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