Olivia Smoliga Looking to Defend Her Trials Title in ‘Loaded’ 100 Backstroke, Make Mark in Freestyle

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Olivia Smoliga stunned the swimming world when she won the 100 backstroke title at the 2016 Olympic Trials, a changing-of-the-guard moment in women’s swimming. In that race, Smoliga and Kathleen Baker qualified for Rio, while swimming legends Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin couldn’t quite keep up with the young guns.

Now, Smoliga is a veteran looking to fend off the new wave in the backstroke.

“The 100 back is loaded,” Olivia Smoliga told Swimming World. “The 100 back has been awesome. It is incredible to have so much depth as a country. That is what makes us a top competitor at any international meet. It is exciting to be a part of that.”

Smoliga, who raced the 100 back in 58.31 at the Atlanta Classic last month, is on paper perhaps a favorite to make the team, but in an event like the 100 backstroke, there is not a ton of stock put into favorites.

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Olivia Smoliga. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Baker is back and swimming well, while teen sensation Regan Smith set the world record in the event in 2019. Meanwhile, veterans like Amy Bilquist, Beata Nelson and Ali DeLoof, and younger swimmers Phoebe Bacon, Rhyan White, Claire Curzan and Katharine Berkoff are looking to put together a stunning upset swim just like Smoliga did five years ago.

But Smoliga has been focused on taking in each moment, each swim and each lesson, preparing herself for the best race she can put together.

“I am trying to be the best I can be,” she said. “It is going to be a race and it is going to be so much fun. At this point, you have put in all of this training. It is going to be so exciting to see how much I can do — 2016 drives me. It is the meet that drives me to be able to compare myself to that meet. It is exciting.”

Smoliga is looking to make some noise in some other events as well. She will swim both backstroke events, the 50 and 100 freestyle and possibly the 200 free and 200 back as well.

While she has been one of the world’s greatest backstrokers the past five-plus years, Smoliga is an elite freestyle sprinter as well, something that brings out some stealth swims in the biggest moments.

So Smoliga will be in the mix in the 100 free, especially with six spots making the team because of the 4×100 free relay.

“I feel like the 100 free fits in pretty well. I have been doing more main group based practices focusing on long course freestyle and backstroke. The biggest change has been my mentality and mental fitness, to be able to focus on each event individually,” Smoliga said. “Jack (Bauerle) will always tell me one race at a time. That is what I think when I race now.

“With all the training we have been doing I think it fits really nicely. Being a part of any U.S. relay is a thrill. Being able to make that happen in any event will be thrilling. There is nothing like it. To be in the heat with all of those girls would be an awesome race.

“It doesn’t change the way I think about it but relay spots is an added (cushion). It makes it all the more exciting.”

Smoliga is putting the finishing touches on her technique to bring out her best races at Trials.

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Olivia Smoliga. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“I have been doing a lot of backstroke sculling because I am very leg driven,” she said. “My kick drives me. That will help me push water better.”

Smoliga enters Trials as a contender in multiple events, but she has a different mentality in 2021 than she did in 2020.

“I have kind of learned not to have many expectations throughout this last year with COVID and perspective changes,” she said. “I think our whole post-grad group is thankful that we were one of the few post-grad groups to find spots to train during COVID. We made it work. When I was home in Chicago, I was able to find a pool. I am really grateful to be able to train. I don’t even know where I thought I would be at this time.

“For me, it definitely let me let go of some things. A lot more just comes naturally when you don’t expect things. Everything can be a gift. One of those gifts was ISL. We did not expect that to happen. It was guaranteed training, weight rooms and practice with racing.”

Letting go of previous expectations has been transformative for Smoliga, who is embracing the in-the-moment mantra more and more every day.

“I am not thinking where I would have been or could have been. I have to be there in the now to see if I have made the most of the situation,” Olivia Smoliga said. “The experience has helped me tremendously. I think back to myself in 2012 and 2016. Each time I feel I have grown and learned something new. I come into the meet itself just feeling different. Experience helps with anything you want to master or achieve.

“I am going in with the intention to race how I have been training and know I am capable of competing in multiple events. I am excited to see how this Trials will go.”

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