Olivia Smoliga Sees Pro Swim Series Performance as ‘Big Milestone’ and Turning Point

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Olivia Smoliga knew something was off last year.

Her swimming wasn’t going how she’d expected, she didn’t make the world championship team, but more alarming was her struggle with every day activities, like walking her dog.

The two-time Olympian and world champion was feeling the affects of physical and mental exhaustion.

She needed a break. A long break.

Smoliga took nine months away from the pool and relaxed.

“When I first got home, I could barely walk my dog. I was just knocked out after 10 minutes,” Olivia Smoliga told Swimming World. “I just recharged all of my batteries. I didn’t feel good until a month and a half of being home. I wasn’t at equilibrium until then.

“I didn’t swim a lap over the summer. I didn’t lift a weight. I did restorative yoga. I did a couple pushups and pull-ups because I didn’t want to lose my lats. I just played with my dog and went to the beach a lot. I felt extremely restored coming back.”

Her recharge was evident at the first TYR Pro Swim Series stop of the year in Knoxville. Smoliga was runner-up in the 100 backstroke (59.72) and the 100 free (54.61), getting her official Olympic trials cut for next year. She finished third in the 50 backstroke (28.07) and fourth in the 50 free (25.33).


Olivia Smoliga. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But it was a long road that started in Tokyo for Smoliga’s second Olympic Games and coincided with her move to train with Bob Bowman at Arizona State.

“When I came to ASU, I was so excited. I was excited to try something new. After Tokyo was the ISL in Italy, so I barely took any time off after the Olympics. I went and it was really fun being with everyone – but I swam horribly. My stroke was off, the feeling was off,” Smoliga said. “We came back in September and I took a week off then started training. I had a month of training in ASU and it was like a kid in a candy store. I had been at Georgia for eight years, so just a new environment and new stimulus.”

But things took at turn around the holidays.

“I went home for Christmas and I got sick. I went to the Pro Series in San Antonio, and that was probably the slowest meet I have ever had. As training was going on, you have like two months before you start to come down before World Trials. Leading up to trials, I was feeling horrible. Something was off. I remember doing one practice just a few 50s pace and I was struggling,” she said. “I thought it was getting used to the new training, but only in retrospect I realized I didn’t take time off after Tokyo, rushed into the ISL and had no consistent training basis yet. Not taking a physical break and more importantly a mental break after Tokyo, then going into high-intensity racing with the ISL didn’t help.”

It added up to a difficult World Trials.

“World Trials was really tough,” Smoliga said. “He and I know what I am capable of. That obviously wasn’t it. When I got to trials, I felt out. I tried to do my very best to try to make the team. That is all I wanted to do. The best shot I had was in the 50 back. I watched video of the race and beforehand I was just slowly walking to the blocks. It is almost like I was conserving the energy. I was happy with my time, tying my American record, but I fell short in so many ways. I gave it my everything and it was a meet unlike any I had experienced before. I just didn’t have the energy.”

That is when Smoliga knew something was really wrong.

“I was ill when I came back to ASU. I wasn’t getting energy back. I got blood tests, went to doctors. I didn’t have the energy to do laundry. It was a combination of mental exhaustion and physical,” she said. “I just went home to Chicago in May. I stayed home for three months. I got COVID within the first week of being home and I was down bad. I had the flu and nausea and headaches for a week. Then, when I recovered from that, I was going to Lake Michigan with by brother and taking my dog for long walks. Jay (Litherland) and I planned a trip to Hawaii. That definitely recharged the batteries even more. I came back to ASU the second week of August.”

Smoliga felt different in the water upon her return, but it was a good different.

“The first practice back was the first time I got to swim with Simone (Manuel). I remember kicking and just talking with her and catching up on life,” she said. “I remember pushing off the wall and feeling like a noodle. Nothing was connecting. What better place to start from than here? I was starting with a clean slate with no meets until 2023. It is a really cool feeling to just be building yourself up.

“I knew I wasn’t ready, but I really wanted to race.”

She didn’t race at the end of 2022, skipping short-course worlds and the U.S. Open. But she was back in 2023 for the TYR Pro Swim Series.

“I was so nervous. I had butterflies in my throat during prelims. I loved it. I loved every second of it. I got to see my friends. I spun my wheels. My start was sloppy, my finish was long as hell, but I loved every second of it,” Smoliga said. “My mentality toward racing has changed so drastically in a year. I was very hard on myself in the past and I would tear apart the race and not be the kindest to myself, which is something we can all get trapped into. You pick apart everything rather than taking things for what they are. This took an immense amount of training on my part to change my mentality from ‘I hope I do well.’ I feel like I had a lot of imposter syndrome throughout my entire career.


Olivia Smoliga. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Coming into this meet, it was LET’S RACE. Let’s see what I can do after this training. I sounds so simple but it is something I am just mastering now. People call me a vet because I have been around for a decade, which is crazy, but I am constantly learning things.”

A lot of swimmers take a break for so long and decide they are done with the water. Smoliga had those questions enter her mind during her break, but she always had a quick answer.

“I really love swimming. I love being in the water. I love swimming fast.  I know it was a TYR Pro Swim Series, but this was a big milestone for me,” she said. “Swimming in all of its beauty and charm and excitement comes with the exact opposite as well. It comes with the hard times, the hardships, the struggles, the mental focus necessary. It can really weigh on you if you don’t take your breaks or reset your focuses.

“I found myself having so much fun racing and competing. That is a testament to taking a mental and physical break before starting a new season. It is a testament to easing back into things slowly. It is a testament to me and the amazing coaching staff at ASU who have worked with me every day.”

Smoliga will remember the lessons she learned during the break as she enters the next phase of her career at 28.

“I am happy that everything happened the way it did because I was able to grow and learn from my mistakes and go into this season with better wherewithal,” she said. “I didn’t set myself up for success.”

Now, she knows what it will take for success, and training with Bowman is already paying dividends.

“I know in my soul what I am capable of doing. I have always had this fire in me. I feel like I didn’t have it last season. It is a slow burn now, a calmer fire, because I know a little bit more about myself and how this sport works. But I am juiced up after this Knoxville meet,” Olivia Smoliga said. “I don’t have anything to prove to anyone else, but I know what I am capable of and I want to see that through to the best of my ability.

“I am training to make teams and be successful on those teams. I am training to be the best possible version of myself.”


More on Olivia Smoliga

Olivia Smoliga Caps Short Course Worlds With Record 8 Golds; Dahlia 9 Total Medals

Refocused World Champ Olivia Smoliga: Failure Taught Me to ‘Shake Things Off a Little Faster’

Olivia Smoliga Says Post-Worlds Break ‘Put Everything In Perspective’ On Way To Pro-Tour Debut

Olivia Smoliga Moves to Train with Bob Bowman at Arizona State

Natalie Hinds, Olivia Smoliga Share Rare Bond, Now Olympic Teammates: ‘That is Why This is So Special For Us’

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