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

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Olivia Smoliga at 2019 Worlds. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

On the day the women’s 100 backstroke finals were supposed to take place at the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials, Olivia Smoliga was at her family home in the Chicago suburbs.

She was not in the water, nor was she dwelling on what could have been had the COVID-19 pandemic not pushed the trials and the Olympics to 2021.

Instead, Smoliga has remained focused on being in the moment, on what she can control in order to make the team next year. For someone who wears her emotions on her sleeve, Smoliga has found a remarkable balance, allowing her to continue to keep an even-keel mentality.

“It has taken practice to think about things that way,” Olivia Smoliga told Swimming World. “I try to surround myself with people who think similarly. As long as I am healthy and happy, those are the things that really matter. So I am able to shake things off a little faster. Failure taught me that.”

In fact, it was changing her definition of failure that allowed her to change her mentality.

“I watched this video that Kobe Bryant did and he said that failure doesn’t exist. How can it be a failure if you learn from it and get another chance at it? I definitely liked that,” Smoliga said. “I take everything that happens as a lesson.”

That includes things that she ultimately can’t control, like the pandemic pushing the Olympic dreams of so many back a year, which has altered the plans and lives of so many athletes.

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Olivia Smoliga; Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“Whenever I think about it, I wonder if I should have a different reaction,” she said. “I don’t feel disappointed. I feel like I have taken this time and realized it is what our lives are like. We have to move forward and get ’em next year. I can’t really worry about something I have no control over.”

What she does have control over is how hard she is working and what that drive can ultimately lead to.

That was something she learned in 2016. She went into the Olympic trials as the favorite in the finals of the 100 backstroke and used a back-half surge to win and earn a spot at her first Olympics, winning a gold medal on the medley relay.

“I never even considered myself the favorite,” Smoliga said. “My experience in 2016 was so different than it was in 2012 and so different than it (will be) in 2021, based on who I am as a person. In 2012, I went in wanting to make the team. Going into the final after being third in the semis, I was certainly overwhelmed with the fact that Missy (Franklin) and Natalie (Coughlin) were in that heat. I was trying to take it in. But I was still betting on myself even with the legends there. That disappointment was hard to get over, at 17, but then going in first in everything in 2016 — why didn’t I take more pride in knowing I was seeded first? But again anything can happen in trials. I didn’t think that way.”

That changed once Smoliga was able to put into perspective her full potential in the sport, and that she belonged in that group of the world’s elite swimmers.

“I have tried to be that way ever since. I have tried to focus on my own race and my own lane. Easier said than done of course, but worrying about anything else doesn’t help,” she said. “I really know how I operate. I have taken the time to expand and improve and just absolutely dominate my mental game through meditation and self talk. I just feel really good. I am so looking forward to seeing what I can do.”

That means embracing the challenge of going head-to-head with current world record holder Regan Smith, and a deep group of backstrokers in the U.S.

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Olivia Smoliga; Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“The 100 back is a very deep event. First through eighth place, any of us could make the team,” she said. “Regan Smith is the world record holder, so going into that event, not only does my respect for her inspire me, but her swims themselves inspire me. You can look at it one of two ways. I could look at someone as doing better than me and wonder why it wasn’t me. Or you could think, wow, if she could do this, why can’t I? I am inspired by Regan so I can give my 100 percent best going into trials. Giving any less than that would be a disservice to myself and the sport of swimming.”

It is that kind of mentality that has made Smoliga one of the top swimmers in the world, something she continues to prove with every big meet. In 2018, she won a stunning eight gold medals at the short-course World Championships, then won gold in the 50 backstroke in an American record, and bronze in the 100 backstroke at the 2019 long-course Worlds.

With no major competitions in 2020, Smoliga, who swims for Jack Bauerle, is ready to unleash a similar performance in 2021.

“It is hard to have the fiercest motivation when you are looking ahead a whole year with no major competitions in sight,” she said. “I am taking this time as a restoration period. (On) days I am fired up, I go for it. But I am having my mental game be as level as possible.”

The balanced mindset will have Olivia Smoliga poised to make another Olympic team — and unleash the emotion that has been building since 2016.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Superfan

    Let’s give her main coach, Brian Smith, some credit!

  2. avatar
    Troyy

    It seems very likely that Smoliga won’t make the team at all.

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