Olivia Smoliga Returns to World Domination With Fresh Focus

Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

By Dan D’Addona.

Eight gold medals at the 2018 FINA World Short Course Championships was a remarkable feat.

But for Olivia Smoliga, the record-setting performance was bigger than she realized.

“What I took from it the most was my improvement overall in the way that I raced and the confidence throughout the meet itself, something I have been struggling with the past couple of years,” Smoliga told Swimming World.

Four years ago, Smoliga was an NCAA champion and soon to be an Olympian in Rio.

Her ascension to making the Olympic team was stunning, but after the ultimate high of making the Olympic team, Smoliga, like many athletes, quickly experienced a low.

But it didn’t go away.

“It is tough. Swimming is a grueling sport for sure. You have one bad year and it affects your career for several years. My goal in 2016 was to make the Olympic team. But I had a poor performance at the Olympics and I think that disappointing energy carried over into the next year. You have this high, then this low,” Smoliga said. “Going into 2017, my NCAAs were OK. Then I got mono right before world trials. I just had to try to do the best I can. I was OK, but I fell short.

“I can’t expect to be perfect all the time but it was a bummer.”

After the NCAA championships in 2017, Smoliga didn’t make the podium at worlds, and the missed goals continued.

“I got really tired of losing. I had a mentality switch this fall after PanPacs, which didn’t go well. I took a whole month off after PanPacs, which is the longest I ever have. I spent a month on my couch. I reflected a lot. It was really important to me,” she said.

“But you get lost in your thoughts. If you get stuck on the bad thoughts, it is hard to get out. It was hard to get back, though, because that put me out of shape. Making the Olympic team should have given me all the confidence in the world. I made the team and I had these expectations from other people. I don’t listen to other people’s opinions or read any expectations any more. It was overwhelming in a way. I only listen to whose opinion’s matter.

It just came as a shock. I remember watching playback of myself in Rio and I was was just blank. Zero emotion. I wasn’t talking and I wasn’t focused. You never want to have that. You want to be amped up and relaxed at the same time. It is a happy balance, but I really felt nothing at the Olympics.”

“I just felt a big low when I got back. It is a process.”


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Part of the problem was Smoliga was not used to being alone in the water. After helping Georgia to a pair of national championships, she was used to having a team support and doing things that were best for the team.

“What she did there was the benefit of NCAA swimming. Her senior year, we put the saddle on her. She did everything for us. She was a part of two national championships during her time here. She was the ultimate teamer,” Georgia coach Jack Bauerle said. “I think there were times that she stood up for the team and swam so much faster. For a person like Olivia, that transition is so difficult. It was a tough adjustment and it is for a lot of young people. She felt like she was depended upon for a long time, and that just was gone.”

It took a while to figure it out. The first step was admitting that a change was necessary. After taking a month off, she changed her routine.

“I felt like something needed to change in my daily routine. You can’t expect different results, doing everything again. I got the opportunity to go to this camp at Stanford with Katie (Ledecky), Simone (Manuel) and Haley Anderson and a few others. That to me came at the perfect time. I was really struggling in October,” Smoliga said. “I was surrounded by purely professional athletes, these strong, badass girls who train hard every day. I have always seen that, but it never sunk in the way that they carry themselves on a day to day basis. That was so cool to me. They are my peers but I look up to them so much. They work so hard and that is why they are winning. I wanted to be like that.

“On top of training with the best in the world, it was great to be around their energy. I wanted to embody this vibe doing back to Georgia, then two months later, I went to short-course worlds and had one of the best meets of my career.”

It was one of the best meets of any career.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Eight gold medals included golds in the 50 and 100 backstroke, and on six winning relays for Team USA. She was on the two sprint free relays, the two sprint medley relays, and the two mixed relays, swimming on the prelims relay in the 4×50 free and the mixed free.

They weren’t just wins, they were record swims.

In the 50 back, Smoliga touched first in 25.88 to break the American record of 25.97 she set earlier this week leading off the 4×50 medley relay. She was faster later in the week leading off the 4×50 medley relay (25.85), although that time does not count officially because it came in a mixed relay event. She is the only American in history to break 26 seconds in the event in short course meters.

In the 100 back, Smoliga set the American record in the semi-finals (55.47), and won the race in the finals in 56.19 to hold off Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu.

“What a performance. I am so proud of her,” Bauerle said. “Right before she left, I told her she would be very busy. She had to have had at least 18 swims. She loves racing and the bigger the stage, the more she is relaxed and engaging.”

At 24, Smoliga hopes this performance leads to a lengthy resurgence.

“I wanted to show myself what I could do. My first prelim swim was .4 off a world record, and that got me so excited. That confidence I had before that meet was so much better. I definitely felt more locked in and more focused in general. I continue to take myself a lot more seriously,” she said. “In college, you are focused on your team and everyone else. It is not all about you. Now that I am focused on me and my career, I am finally more locked in.”

That includes some different pre-race routines. Smoliga has always been very open and chatty in general, including with her competitors before a race. With the more business-like approach, that has changed.

“I completely turn to music (mostly hip-hop) in the ready room and focus instead of talking to the girls. I acted more focused and visualized my races. That is something I changed for pre-race.”

With a new routine and new outlook on herself and her sport, Smoliga is ready for more breakout swims without dwelling on the pressure that comes along with success.

“It is not that I don’t set goals anymore, but going into short course worlds, I didn’t have any goals and I just wanted to swim the best I could,” she said. “All that I can ask for myself is a constant and steady improvement. I work to get better every day. I have learned the hard way of having these expectations. I just don’t have them anymore. I trust myself and race the best I can and I will continue to do that as long as I can.”

And if the new outlook continues, Smoliga’s resurgence could turn into a renaissance.

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5 years ago

Hope her attitude works long course! She has always been a beast short course!

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