After Struggles, Deferrals and Breakthroughs, Erica Sullivan Takes On NCAA Swimming

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Erica Sullivan -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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After Struggles, Deferrals and Breakthroughs, Erica Sullivan Takes On NCAA Swimming

At age 17, as Erica Sullivan represented the United States as a team captain at the 2017 World Junior Championships in Indianapolis, she immediately lit up the pool deck with her extroverted personality, her energy and her enthusiasm. “I love making people laugh,” Sullivan said. “Most of the time, I’m the loudest one in the room, so it’s always fun to use that attention and spotlight to make it positive and make it silly and kind of lighten up the mood, especially in those high-pressure environments where everyone is kind of stressed out and it is heavy and you don’t really need any more negative energy in the air.”

Sullivan did not perform particularly well at that World Junior meet, finishing off her best times and topping out in fourth place in her events, but she still maintained that same vivacious demeanor and magnetic personality that has drawn in friends and fans of all sorts as her profile in the swimming world has expanded. But at that meet, Sullivan was dealing with intense trauma and grief, the worst nightmare imaginable for a teenager.

Less than a month earlier, Sullivan had lost her father, John, to esophageal cancer. The news was not public knowledge yet, and Sullivan admitted, “I was kind of in a state of shock, so I wasn’t really processing anything.”

However, over the next few months, as the numbness wore off, a deep depression took hold. Ron Aitken, Sullivan’s coach at Sandpipers of Nevada, observed through Sullivan’s actions and efforts in practice and through conversations with his pupil that something was deeply off.

“The inner dialogue in my head just got really, really bad,” Sullivan said. “When I would do these hard workouts, it was fine because I would be focused on the hard workout, but the minute we would start to do recovery practices and I had time to think in my head during swim, it would just get so negative. I would have to get out of the water, panic attack, freaking out, and Ron was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’”

Aitken reached out to then-USA Swimming National Junior Team coordinator Mitch Dalton, who helped set up Sullivan for weekly meetings with a therapist. The sessions helped Sullivan work through her emotions and mental health, but they took a toll. She would arrive at practice straight after therapy, and often times, she would find herself emotionally drained and then physically exhausted. At other times, she said, “I swam better because I had a big weight lifted off my chest.”

Sullivan remembers hitting rock bottom in early March, when she swam at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Atlanta. She remembers swimming 4:24 in her 400 freestyle heat, some 17 seconds off her best time

“I think Ron heard me say some negative comment before I got in the water, like, ‘Let’s just hope I don’t get eighth,’ and I got eighth,” Sullivan recalled. “And Ron pulled me out, and he was like, ‘I don’t care what time you go or how tired you are right now. The minute you start manifesting bad things for yourself and then you dive in the water and those bad things happen, you’re going to create a negative connotation about racing.’”

Aitken told Sullivan that night that he would not let her race again until she had worked through the mental health challenges, and Sullivan realized that “Shoot, I really need to get my mindset together.’” She added, “And I did. I worked super hard for the next two months.” Her primary focus became maintaining positive self-talk inside her head, and gradually, she started noticing better results in practice.

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Erica Sullivan at U.S. Nationals in 2018 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Two months after the Atlanta debacle, Sullivan raced at the U.S. Open Water Nationals in Tempe, Ariz., and she placed third behind decorated open water veterans Ashley Twichell and Haley Anderson. Three months after that, Sullivan would qualify to represent the U.S. on the senior level for the first time as her third-place finish in the 1500 free at U.S. Nationals qualified her for the Pan Pacific Championships.

Sullivan made small strides throughout her therapy sessions over those months, steps so small that she barely noticed. “It took me thinking back on where I was six months prior before I realized, ‘Oh shoot, I did get a lot better in those months. I have made massive improvements,’” Sullivan said.

Since then, Sullivan has avoided sinking to the depths of depression that she reached in the year following her father’s death, but she still deals with challenges regularly and meets with a therapist to work through those issues. “By no means am I suddenly, in the last four years, ‘Oh, I am sure. I never have a panic attack. I never have a depressive episode. I never cry,’” Sullivan said.

Mental health, she said, is like taking care of a car. “Are you going to wait until you drive through the mud and drive through the rain and all this stuff and just wait for the car to get dirtier and dirtier until you literally can’t see at the windshield anymore?” Sullivan said. “Or are you going to go on one ride and just kind of wipe it down a little bit? Go on another ride, wipe it down a little bit? Are you going to wait until mass destruction comes, or are you going to do little maintenance?”

When she had some issues in her personal life in February, Sullivan said, she went through a three-day stretch where she was struggling, and she barely ate or slept. “It happened four days after therapy and I had a three-day span before I had therapy again, Sullivan said. “Went to therapy, did my maintenance check, got it all out, and that stopped, so I didn’t let it manifest at all. You know what I mean? When you hold onto those feelings? And I felt so much better the day after that.”


Coming Out and College Deferred

When she was a junior in high school, Sullivan committed to swim for the University of Southern California, and she intended to train under Catherine Vogt, then a Trojans assistant and a multi-time head coach for the U.S. Olympic open water team. Sullivan originally planned to enroll in the fall of 2018, but after qualifying for Pan Pacs, she chose to remain at home in Las Vegas. By the end of 2018, she had announced a two-year deferment, until after the 2020 Olympic Trials and, hopefully, the Tokyo Olympics.

Then, after the Olympics had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Vogt had departed USC, Sullivan decommitted from the Trojans. Three months later, she announced she would be attending the University of Texas beginning in the fall of 2021. At Texas, Sullivan would be reunited with Dalton, now an assistant coach for Carol Capitani’s team.

When Sullivan decommitted, she pointed out that she was a different person than she was when she had committed three years earlier.

“When I was 16 and I was looking at colleges, I had just come out of the closet,” she said. “I was out as bi, but I kind of knew. I knew I was gay. I think at that time in my life, I was craving such an over accepting environment but I was looking for a hardcore liberal school. That’s part of the reason I ended up at USC. It was such an accepting environment. I hadn’t learned the fact that there are accepting people everywhere. I was stereotyping a lot of things. Honestly, if I was sixteen, I would probably be scared of going to school in Texas because Texas has this rep for being in the South and not accepting.”

Coming out as lesbian, Sullivan said, “changed my life in subtle ways where you look at me and you don’t really notice,” but within the swimming community, her impact has been significant. In 2021, she became the first openly LGBTQ+ swimmer to represent the U.S. at the Olympics, and a lesbian swimmer excelling on the sport’s biggest stage will undoubtedly allow others who identify as LGBTQ+ to feel more comfortable in the sport into the future.

On a more personal level, Sullivan believes that her sexuality made the process of training for the Olympics a bit less complicated. “Ron, I don’t know if that man will ever admit this, but I think he was kind of relieved. It made his life so much easier. He never had to worry about boys,” Sullivan said.

In 2019, Sullivan traveled internationally to several World Cup stops with only Aitken and Brennan Gravely, a Sandpipers teammate who was a member of the U.S. national team for open water. “People don’t know this but Brennan was my first boyfriend. We dated on and off for two or three years,” she said.

The 2018-19 year was a very successful one for Sullivan, as she finished the year ranked third in the nation in the 1500 free and she took fifth at World Championships in the 25k race, and “a lot of that was because I genuinely had such a healthy training connection with Brennan that year. Brennan and I really got along. We just understood each other. It came from a place of, we wanted the best for each other, and we really loved each other,” Sullivan said. “The way Ron used that relationship that Brennan and I had created a really good training environment honestly made me into the athlete I am. It just really got the ball rolling for me.”


Fulfilling the Olympic Dream

In June 2021, Sullivan achieved everything she had ever worked for at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha. In the 1500 freestyle, on the Olympic program of events for the first time ever, Sullivan was in second place behind distance legend Katie Ledecky for almost the entire race, and she held off Katie Grimes, a 15-year-old teammate of Sullivan’s with the Sandpipers, to earn a spot in Tokyo.

But as it turned out, stress, tension and pressure made Olympic Trials not the fulfilling experience that Sullivan had spent years envisioning. “It sucked. It sucked. I left Trials telling Ron I never want to do that again. I got to the point where I was like, ‘I just want to try to qualify for my next Olympics in Open Water. I never want to do that again,’” Sullivan said.

“I put a lot of my mental sanity into making this team. And it finally came around, and I finally got everything I ever wanted, but I still didn’t feel full. And obviously, it’s because the best part about making the team, at least for me, is the people I meet, and it’s hanging out with Regan (Smith) and Alex (Walsh) and Kate (Douglass) and Emma (Weyant) and Paige (Madden) and Brooke Forde and Phoebe (Bacon). Hanging out with these people is what makes your Olympic experience. It’s not the times on the board. It’s not the races themselves. The part that brings me together with swim is the people. So right after I made the Olympic team, I wasn’t seeing the people. I wasn’t seeing the validating part that makes me love swim.”

The last day of the meet was June 20, Father’s Day. After the Olympic team was announced, Sullivan watched others who qualified for the Olympic team celebrate with their dads, and not being able to do the same brought back all the pain of losing her dad four years earlier. For years, Sullivan had heard people offer condolences about her dad by saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” a well-intentioned comment but actually an upsetting one.

“I was like, ‘If making the Olympic team is supposed to make up for my dad dying, I don’t want it. It’s not worth it. I would rather have my dad back than be on the Olympic team,’” Sullivan said. “I remember I was really upset about that.”

But one week after Trials, when Sullivan and the rest of the U.S. team arrived in Hawaii for training camp, the experience turned much more positive. Sullivan called her group of friends on the team “that junior team but not really, the hybrid generation.” At the Olympics, she was in a suite with five other swimmers, three of whom had also been on the 2017 World Juniors team, Smith, Walsh and Douglass, with Weyant and Bacon also in the group.

“We had this living room with a bunch of plastic chairs,” Sullivan said. “We took the bed extenders from the cardboard beds and made makeshift couches. It was just such a funny room. It was the best. It was like summer camp. I love those guys.”

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Erica Sullivan with Sandpipers teammate Katie Grimes after the 800 free at Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Two other Sandpipers joined Sullivan on the Olympic team as 16-year-old Bella Sims finished fifth in the 200 free at Trials to earn a spot on the 800 free relay, while Grimes later took second in the 1500 free. Sullivan called those two “my children” and “my babies” after she trained alongside them for more than a year in preparation for Trials.

“I was shocked at how they did, like everyone else, but also not really,” Sullivan said. “It made sense to me because they put in the same amount of work that I did.”

Sullivan arrived in Tokyo with the knowledge that she had never actually performed well at a major international competition. She qualified third for the 1500 free final (she briefly held the Olympic record before Ledecky broke it in the following heat), and right after, she sat down with Aitken.

“Ron was just like, ‘You need to listen to me. You’ve got this in the bag. Just do your race plan. Do not mess up your race plan,’” Sullivan said. “He goes, ‘If I can give you one last bit of advice right now, don’t mess up your race plan.’”

For the majority of the race, it did not look like Sullivan was putting together a performance worthy of an Olympic medal. She sat in sixth place for a long stretch and then in fifth place until the 1100-meter mark, but over the last several laps, she picked off swimmers one by one, first reigning world champion Simona Quadarella, then Wang Jianjiahe and finally, with less than 200 meters to go, Sarah Kohler.

At that point, Sullivan said, “I think I’m second, but someone could have definitely snuck up ahead. I also saw myself getting closer and closer to Katie. I was like, ‘OK, Katie is in reach. Logically, I should be OK.’ But also, I just didn’t want to get my hopes up. I just remember going into the last 150 being like, ‘Don’t get your hopes up. Don’t get your hopes up. You don’t know. You have no idea if someone went ahead and you missed them.’”

Indeed, Sullivan was in second place, and as soon as she touched the wall, she saw Ledecky slam the water in excitement. Almost instantly, Sullivan realized that she had won the silver medal and it was a U.S. 1-2 finish as Ledecky reached over the lane line for a hug.


At Texas and Beyond

After she won her Olympic medal, one story about Sullivan called her an athlete “on the more obscure side of… her sport.” Well, that status did not last long. As the world met this gregarious 20-year-old for the first time, she quickly grabbed a lot of attention. She spoke with Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on NBC’s TODAY Show, and when she returned home for bed that night, she noticed that her social media followings had exploded.

“The gay scene really, really picked up. That was the most insane 48 to 72 hours of my life,” Sullivan said. “The weirdest one was a BuzzFeed article where it was like, ‘All hail lesbian supreme Erica Sullivan.’ I was like, ‘This is crazy. This is insane. This is more than I can comprehend.’”

Soon after, Sullivan finally began college as she left Vegas and headed for Austin, Texas. After the attention provided by the Olympics, she began to seek out people who knew her outside of swimming. “When I met my girlfriend, she had no awareness of the Olympics. I loved it,” Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, despite being a 21-year-old college freshman, Sullivan has blended in well with her new teammates on the Texas women’s squad. The experience has been especially positive after she essentially put her life on hold for three years to focus on qualifying for the Olympics. Swimming, which felt akin to a job during that Olympics-focused stretch, has become about camaraderie and laughing with teammates, maybe showing off some of the age-appropriate humor that she could not share with her club training partners who were three to five years younger.

“Getting to be on a team where swimming is important, but it’s more than just a team,” Sullivan said of her experience at Texas. “You’re living with these girls. They’re your age. They become your mini little family. You go to school together. You’re in the same classes together. It’s honestly been the most fulfilling experience I could have asked for.”

Sullivan plans to continue swimming through 2024 but no further. “Hard quit,” she said. After deferring for three years, she will only have three years of NCAA eligibility, and she hopes to try for the Paris Olympics but no further. After that, she plans to devote her attention to becoming a filmmaker. She currently takes film classes three days per week, and she calls her time as a college athlete “my transition period.”

After she finishes her eligibility, she will devote her final year of school to filmmaking. She plans to spend one semester of that year in either New York or Los Angeles “to start my career and try to be taken seriously in the film industry like I am taken seriously in the swim industry.” She knows the plan is bold, but she added, “I think I’m just fortunate enough to know my life plan, and I fully plan on sticking to that.”

That leaves two-and-a-half years for Sullivan to accomplish her remaining goals in swimming, including both pool and open water. She is focused on this year’s Open Water Nationals, which will be held April 1-3 in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. With Twichell and Anderson having both retired after the Tokyo Olympics, Sullivan will be among the favorites, and she is excited to focus on open water again after gearing toward the pool for two years in hopes of qualifying for Tokyo.

Before that, Sullivan will compete for Texas in the 500 free and 1650 free at NCAA Championships in Atlanta as her Longhorns squad hopes to match last year’s impressive third-place finish. Sullivan is the second-fastest performer in history in the 1650 free, but she is actually seeded ninth based on season-best times, so she will be racing in the final afternoon heat hoping to put up a time that will contend with swimmers racing at night.

“Especially where the way I swim where I just kind of linger and I wait until I build momentum, it’s really hard to do that short course. I’ve done just so much learning and so much race strategy the last few months with Mitch and Carol. It’s been hard. It feels like I’m learning a new event,” Sullivan said.

“At the end of the day, my mentality is just for Texas. That’s what college swimming is. You just have to do it for your school. I don’t want to put a lot of expectation on a time or something for me. I just want to swim to the best of my ability and represent Texas well.”

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SETH
5 months ago

What a wonderful feature about this extraordinary athlete.

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SETH
5 months ago

Also, what happened to the article about Ms. Sullivan’s views on competing with Lia Thomas? It was a good article. Swimming World could have kept the article and gotten rid of the comments section as they have in the past.