‘Old Lady’ Erica Sullivan Eager For Next Chapter as Sandpipers Career Winds Down

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Each year come Academy Award season, Erica Sullivan, a huge movie fan, likes to compare the Best Picture nominees to types of everyday swimmers. This year, she compared eventual Best Actor winner, 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins in The Father, to herself at Sandpipers of Nevada as “the swimmer that still trains with a club team even though they are way too old.”

Sullivan had originally committed to the University of Southern California where she would have been a freshman in the fall of 2018, where she would study film and train with legendary coach Dave Salo and renowned open water coach Catherine Kase. But Sullivan deferred her enrollment until after the 2020 Olympics.

Sullivan had endured many personal hardships which led to her deferral, with her dad passing away in 2017. Through communication with USC’s Salo, she decided to stay at home in the fall of 2018, and enroll in January for the spring semester, and then take an Olympic redshirt for the 2019-20 school year. But then more complications arose.

“When it was time for me to work out the details for college in the fall of 2018, we learned that I wouldn’t be able to attend USC due to academic challenges,” Sullivan wrote in June 2020. “We decided it would be healthier to stay home for the selected semester and take a few classes while still working on my mental health.”

When she made that difficult decision to defer in the fall of 2018, it was to ensure she could have a run at the Olympics with coach Ron Aitken at Sandpipers in a comfortable environment at home. As she was gearing up for her final year with Sandpipers, Salo announced he was leaving leaving USC in January 2020, and Kase followed soon after.

A few months later, the Olympics got postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With all of this happening so quickly, Sullivan was having second thoughts of what college for her would look like.

Would it be worth it to still go in fall of 2020 and train under a new coach a year ahead of the Olympics? Was it worth swimming under a different staff than originally intended? Would staying an extra year at home and enrolling in 2021 as a 21-year-old freshman be the better option?

All these questions weighed on Sullivan before she made the difficult decision to withdraw her enrollment from USC.

At age 20, Sullivan considers herself the grandma on the Sandpipers team, and frequently jokes about how she still hasn’t left, comparing herself to Anthony Hopkins’ character in The Father. Having graduated in 2018, she is three years older than the current high school senior class.

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Erica Sullivan announcing her college commitment. Photo Courtesy: @erica.sully

“The three years have been very long,” Erica Sullivan told Swimming World at Open Water Nationals in Fort Myers. “Everyone on the pool deck can testify because they’re always like ‘when are you going to college?’ I was like ‘I don’t even know anymore.'”

Sullivan, an admittedly changed person since her initial commitment to USC as a 16-year-old, eventually landed on the University of Texas in her second recruitment process, where she will officially swim next year for coaches Carol Capitani and Mitch Dalton.

“When I told people the Texas news, they were like ‘oh my gosh finally!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m glad as well!’

“Honestly, as much as in a perfect world, it would have been Catherine and Dave and that would have been the plan since 2016, and that would have been awesome but it doesn’t go to plan all the time. I’m really lucky to have the support system like Mitch and Carol welcoming me at Texas. It’s new and I’ve changed a lot and I think where Texas is right now is just the better fit for where I am right now. I’m super excited to see where my open water career goes when I’m with Mitch and Carol. I’m excited to see what they can do.”

The End of an Era

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Erica Sullivan is approaching her final days with Sandpipers of Nevada. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

As Sullivan is approaching her final days with Sandpipers, she will attack the rescheduled Olympic Trials and fight for spots in the 800 freestyle and the newly added 1500 free. Sullivan, who has built a reputation in the open water venue, placing fifth in the 25K at the 2019 Worlds, has also established herself as one of the top distance swimmers in the United States while swimming for Aitken.

“I’m just more comfortable in the mile and with that comes more excitement,” Erica Sullivan said of Olympic Trials. “I really want to just push the limits of my body and who knows, I don’t want to put an expectation on a time or a place or anything but I definitely want to push my body and do the best to my ability and hopefully that will be enough and with that I can make some teams or go a best time.”

This year marked Sullivan’s last open water nationals with 10K Olympians Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell, who Sullivan has idolized since she got into open water.

“Whenever I see them, I’m like a puppy dog – I get so giddy and excited. No matter how many trips I go on with them,” Sullivan said. “It will always be surreal and the fact this is coming down to the end with them, it’s been nice to be able to do a couple more with them. If I get half of their knowledge, I am totally happy and will take it.

“If only they could see themselves in the way I see them because they are amazing and I love them to death. Even after all this is over, I plan on keeping tabs. At the end of the day, swimming is a sport but the relationship and the dynamic we have built over the years is so much more than that and I definitely plan on expanding that over the next few years.”

After Tokyo, Sullivan looks to be the new face of women’s open water swimming as Anderson and Twichell have both insisted on retiring after the Games, leaving someone else to take the throne of top ultra distance swimmer in the United States. Sullivan will also finally be able to take her talents to the University of Texas, a moment she has been waiting a long, long time for, and one she is ready to take on.

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