After Sophomore Struggles, Canadian Olivia Anderson is Back to her Best for Georgia

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Olivia Anderson Photo Courtesy: Rich von Biberstein

Olivia Anderson didn’t quite grasp all of what she was getting into at the University of Georgia in the fall of 2017. And for a self-identified overthinker, that was cause for concern.

Anderson was coming off a dream summer. The native of Mississauga, Ontario, won national titles in the 800 and 1,500 free in the summer of 2017. She represented Canada at the World Championships in Budapest, placing 20th and 14th, respectively.

That last swim, at least in Anderson’s mind, was the start of a downward trend.

“I obviously was so excited to have been on the Worlds team, but I really was disappointed with how I actually swam there,” Olivia Anderson said last week. “I came here (to Georgia) after that weird summer of, this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me but I feel like I let myself down, I feel like I let my coaches down, kind of felt embarrassed almost because I didn’t swim very well.”

What Anderson thought was a pinnacle in her career gave way to a sheer drop-off on the other side. She expected an adjustment at Georgia – from meters to yards, to dual meets for the first time, to a new coach, a new club, new teammates. But the weight of expectations made it feel overwhelming.

Her journey hit a nadir last spring. Facing health issues that constrained her training, Anderson, after placing third at SECs and making NCAAs in the 1,650 as a freshman, didn’t make the NCAAs cut as a sophomore.

“You always hear about the stories of swimmers that come to the U.S. and fall off the face of the earth,” she said. “And I was really scared after last year that I was going to be one of those stories.”

Instead, Anderson is penning an impressive second act, even before her 21st birthday. With the strength of her new home in Georgia and teammates that connect her back to Canada, Anderson has returned to setting personal-bests this season. She’s entering the postseason and Olympic Trials that follow with a newfound confidence.

“I just wasn’t that swimmer”

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Olivia Anderson; Photo Courtesy: Chamberlain Smith

Anderson was ready for aspects of the transition to Georgia, like the puzzle of translating her fixation on meters splits to yards. But some of the most elemental seeming ones eluded her.

One: She’d never competed in anything but a racing suit.

“Having to get up and not worry about the time but just worry about beating the person was next to me was totally surreal,” she said. “I was just very used to, ‘OK, we’re going to go to Provincials, we’re going to swim an 800, and we’re going to see how fast we can go,’ and it wasn’t really about beating the person next to you.

“I think that was one of the biggest things, I had to get out of my head freshman year and learn how to swim against the people next to me and not worry about what the times were.”

That worry piled up. And while she survived as a freshman, Anderson was still measuring herself against not just who she was in 2017, but the swimmer she thought people expected her to be. Even at an elite enclave like Georgia, carrying a Worlds trip on your resume elevated her status. And as Anderson ruminated on what that meant, she saw the downsides most prominently.

It came to a head in her sophomore year. With an illness limiting her training, she got to SECs just hoping to sneak into NCAAs – disconnected from herself, from her times, from the joy she used to have in the pool.

“The coaches gave me this idea that they thought I was the swimmer that could put down huge times and go to Worlds and make NCs and score points at SECs, and I just wasn’t that swimmer last year,” she said. “And it was really difficult to get my head around that.”

The results left her at home for NCAAs. And they convinced her to take a two-month sabbatical, missing Canadian Trials for the 2019 World Championships.

“That was really hard for me to sit there and watch the live stream and not be there,” she said. “I thought once I made Worlds, it would be easy for me every year to come back and at least try to make the team or be in the discussion. But to not even be at the meet was really hard.”

A little help from her friends

It would take a little while for Anderson’s break to pay dividends, but it did eventually. She eased back in to competition with a pair of low-key meets in familiar waters, at the ABSC Bulldog Grand Slam in June and the Georgia Senior State Championships in July, both long-course events in Athens.

By the time the college season started, she was at a loss as to how six months of training unlike any she’s done in her career would manifest.

“I showed up at the invite at Tennessee and said to Jack (Bauerle, Georgia head coach), ‘I have no idea what I’m going to go. I feel like I’m in age-group swimming again, I feel like I’m 14 years old again. I feel like I’m going to go swim best times, but I have no idea what that’s going to look like,’” Olivia Anderson said. “And I haven’t been that excited about swimming in a long time.”

Meryn McCann; Photo Courtesy: Swimming Canada

In the 1,000 free that day in November, Anderson went 9:39.96, a personal-best. It was more than 13 seconds faster than that disheartening swim at 2019 SECs and a second and a half better than her time as a freshman at NCAAs (9:41.56). In the 1,650 free, she went 16:00.84, quicker than her 2018 SECs best by nearly seven seconds and trouncing her 2019 SECs time by 28 seconds.

Part of Anderson’s renaissance owes to her safety net in Athens. Among Anderson’s teammates are two other Etobicoke Swimming alums, seniors Meryn McCann and Sofia Carnevale. Anderson said she and Carnevale have been “joined at the hip” since age 13, and she’s known McCann since she was 11.

When they graduated high school, Anderson hadn’t yet decided on attending Georgia. McCann was bound for Athens, but Carnevale spent two seasons at UNLV before transferring, the latest in a Canadian pipeline to Georgia.

Anderson choked up at their recent senior day, contemplating the twists and turns that brought them back together a thousand miles from home. She’s immensely grateful for their help in weathering the ups and downs of college life.

“They’re home,” Anderson said. “They’ve known me forever. They’ve seen me when I’m at my best, so last year when I was at my worst, they were able to really understand where I was coming from.”

They’ll be there when Anderson assumes that next step at Trials. Mackenzie Padington has represented Canada at each of the last two World Championships, and 17-year-old Emma O’Croinin stepped up to win spots in the 400 and 1,500 free at Worlds last year. But Anderson’s best times are in line with both of them in what should be competitive races at Canadian trials in March.

As Anderson’s rebuilding process continues, though, she’s got some intermediate goals to handle for the Bulldogs first.

“I finally felt like I’m the swimmer that I wanted to be freshman year,” Olivia Anderson said. “I’m going the times and contributing the way that I want to be.”