By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Wednesday, June 28, 2017
A gold medal and a sixth place in her individual Olympic event in Rio left University of Georgia standout Olivia Smoliga motivated for more. For Olivia, and so many others, that journey back to the mountaintop starts with the climb in Indianapolis at the Phillips 66 National Championships. She talks about going out as a senior at Georgia with two NCAA team titles in four years, and three more individual all-American honors as a senior this year -- and how Nationals is the springboard to what is next in her life, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Are you surprised by how much excitement is surrounding these Phillips 66 Nationals?
Olivia: Oh my gosh, I think it’s really exciting. Part of it is that there is this shift that started last summer, with younger swimmers stepping up. A lot of kids just graduating high school -- Reece Whitley, who I love, is in that bunch and I’m a fan of his. So there’s that group around 17-18 years old, and then two or three years older there are all these college-age swimmers who made the Olympic team or are ready to step up and make Worlds. But you have so many veterans who are ready to come back, like Matt Grevers, who is still in this and swimming fast as heck -- I’m a huge fan of his, too. I think the coolest thing from my perspective is seeing how college athletes are making a big mark now, as big as I can remember. The level of college swimming is so high nation-wide, and NCAAs is the hardest meet you will ever go through physically.
2. I can’t remember seeing so many college students on the psych sheets, how cool is that?
Olivia: I am really excited to see what college swimmers do at this Nationals. Katie Ledecky is having an effect on college swimming like Michael Phelps has had on all of swimming -- they see her at Stanford and it’s so good for college swimming, for people to see what she’s doing.
You have college students like Katie, Simone, Ryan Murphy -- all these people kids look up to. And the pros are like, “I don’t want these young-uns to beat me.” Look at David Plummer at Trials last year, 35-years-old, married and two kids, up against Ryan Murphy, who was coming off his junior year of college. What a cool thing for USA Swimming. My Dad’s favorite was Tony Ervin, also 35, and I think my Dad was most excited seeing Tony win a gold medal. So it’s good for the U.S., and good for swimming, to have so much talent at such different stages in life, and their careers.
3. Last year’s NCAA team title you were such a key to, the huge performances at Olympic Trials, gold and another final in Rio, and 3 NCAA All-American titles this year -- how amazing was the year?
Olivia: Now that you put it together like that (laughs) in a resume, it sounds pretty cool. A lot of work, a lot of great coaching, and the best teammates there for every moment. I could not ask for more, but I see where I could have improved each time.
4. How was it coming back from the Olympics and jumping right back in for your senior year at Georgia?
Olivia: I’ve been able to process the Olympic Games since I got back but it’s something that is ongoing. When I first got back, it was hard adjusting -- I’ll be first to admit that. You are on this high at the Olympic Games. And at camp, surrounded by superstars. And don’t get me wrong, I am so lucky for that, so fortunate to have these opportunities. I struggled the first few months back, but I found my “happy place” where I was ready to train, race and do everything I could do for the ‘Dawgs.
5. So the post-Olympic slump is a real, tangible thing?
Olivia: Absolutely, 100 percent. I didn’t think that coming back hearing people talk about this Olympic slump you go through after the Games would affect me so much. I like to think of myself as a pretty level headed person and someone who is outgoing and easy going. But that’s not what it’s about. I thought, “Sure, people struggle, but that won’t be me.” I was wrong. You have to take all those experiences and emotions, and organize yourself again. I was definitely disappointed with my individual races in Rio, because I set these high expectations. So you have to put it all in perspective. It was my first time qualifying for the Olympic Games. And I learned a lot there. We won gold in the relay. I met great people and represented my country. When I got back, I was in a rougher place than I led myself to believe in denying initially that the post-Olympic blues would get to me. Definitely every time I got up to race at a dual meet in September or October I didn’t get the butterflies to race that I usually used to get -- I just didn’t get that feeling. I knew something was off. And that was just from the struggle of coming off the Olympics and trying to mold myself back into the team.
6. Was that mental or logistical?
Olivia: I think it was both. I did miss a chunk of training because the team had started training before I was back. Then being a senior with people looking up to me, it was a big adjustment for me. I had to get my confidence back -- get my groove back, and show people what I was about. Emotionally, it was harder than I expected, but I have the best friends ever, best coaches and best teammates ever. They made it a lot easier to get back into it. And I think around January, after the new year, I got back into the swing of things.
7. People have different takes on this but didn’t the quad break perfect for you, having that built-in team structure to help you find your bearings for one more year before you went pro?
Olivia: Oh my gosh yes, it was perfect. I had the most perfect career in terms of the timeline. I hate to be that person who complains about “how hard it was to come back from the Olympics” and have that struggle. But with it comes so many positives.
8. And the positives are that you keep hitting mountain tops right, but the mountains get taller and the challenge is greater each time?
Olivia: The whole journey has been that. I came out of high school with records in the 50 free and 100 back. So I came in with a little bit of experience. But then I came to Georgia and got my behind kicked my freshman year. I had never lifted a weight, never trained long course. So I had to build myself up into the athlete that I could become. I am still building toward that. There’s still plenty of room to improve.
9. You go from NCAAs this spring to being a pro, that’s another shift, isn’t it?
Olivia: Yes, but it’s really cool after four years of college of having this shift from being team-oriented to being individual oriented because I’m ready for that logical step. I have been on a team my entire swimming career. And I love being on USA teams but it’s nothing like being on a college team in terms of all the time you have with your college teammates, school and being around each other all the time. Certainly the pressure is on me to take care of myself more but there’s less stress than being on the college team, especially last year, where I was a senior and a leader, which brought more responsibilities -- which were great and helped me grow, but I’m excited it’s brought me to “what’s next” at this age and stage of my life and career.
10. And so you see the connectedness along the way, from one experience to the next, as you build moving forward?
Olivia: Leading myself into the 2016 Olympic Trials, I wanted to redeem myself from the 2012 Olympic Trials. I knew this had to be my time. Those 2016 NCAAs were the best thing for me. Some deferred or redshirted for the year, which is fine because we’re all on a personal journey and you have to do what works best for you, but for me, I knew I had to swim that year because I still had so much more I had to learn and go through to be ready for Olympic Trials. I had talked to one of my good friends (Olympian) Leah Smith from the University of Virginia, and I asked her if she was going to redshirt when I was looking at it. She said, “Heck no, I’d go stir crazy. I need my teammates and school.” Jack and I talked, and he said the same exact thing, and staying in school and competing was the best thing for me.
11. Those 2016 NCAAs, you swam so much it was crazy as you all won the team title -- how incredible was what you asked of yourself, and found within yourself?
Olivia: The 2016 NCAAs were my favorite NCAAs because that was the sweetest victory. We had the best leadership in Hali (Flickinger), Brittany MacLean, Annie Zhou -- they led us so well. And I knew I’d have to fill in those shoes the next year when I was a senior.
12. In the water though that week you must have learned a lot about what you are capable of under pressure?
Olivia: Yes, it really helped me having those NCAAs leading up to Trails. I think I swam 14 times in 3 days. So I knew if I can do that, I can swim three times at Trials. It helped me be ready and confident. It was, for me, the perfect lead-in to Trials.
13. And you brought it at Olympic Trials and made the team, beating some great swimmers like Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin, among others, in your event to claim your spot, didn’t you?
Olivia: Not just great swimmers, but great people. You never know what will happen at Trials. You can only focus on yourself. And like always, there were upsets, some young swimmers beating these more experienced swimmers who are absolutely studs. Average-age wise, we were a young team. But we still had great veterans.
14 That leadership, how valuable was it starting with camp?
Olivia: It was like having older brothers and sisters, or even (laughs) your parents at camp, because these are people who have and continue to inspire us all on our younger journeys. Camp was a blast. Just so much fun. At first, I was really nervous because I think of myself as outgoing, but I am shy around people I don’t know. But all my friends made the team -- Leah, Simone (Manuel), Lia Neal, Murph (Ryan Murphy), Kathleen (Baker), Mel (Margalis), Hali, Chase (Kalisz), Jay (Litherland), Gunnar (Bentz), and (Coach) Jack (Bauerle) -- all these awesome people. It was like camp with friends. The atmosphere was awesome.
15. We hear it was intense, but it sounds like the personalities made it enjoyable?
Olivia: It was both light-hearted and nerve-racking -- a life-changing event. And having such a young team brought out the kid in everyone. Even Michael Phelps was saying, “This is my favorite Olympic team.” I had never been on a team with him before, but from what I understood he used to kind of stay to himself. Not this time. He was talking to everyone, helping every single person on the team. That was so cool for me, for all of us.
16. And having Leah Smith must’ve made it even that much more fun?
Olivia: Oh yes, of course. We had a team room where we could get snacks and massage therapy and stuff like that. I roomed with Leah at camp, and we walk in to get some bananas. And there is Nathan Adrian cracking jokes with Maya DiRado. We were like, “This is the coolest thing ever!” And to think I was one of them -- or maybe almost one of them, is a pretty great feeling.
17. With your personality, how much did you appreciate Lilly King?
Olivia: She was so tough. So real. So cool. She doesn’t sugar coat it so you realize that and you appreciate that she’s just honest, not offensive or saying things that leave you taken aback. Here’s what I remember most about Lilly on a personal note: She ate McDonald’s chicken nuggets every single morning at the Olympic Village every day for breakfast! I’m over here eating kale salads, and she’s so cool she’s downing nuggets early in the morning. Her attitude -- how genuine and real she is -- was so refreshing.
18. You know the Stanford crew so well -- seeing Simone, Katie Ledecky, Lia and Coach Meehan do so well at the Olympics, and then win NCAAs, what was that like as someone who knows them all?
Olivia: In Rio, Simone’s race was incredible. We weren’t there for the 100 because a group of us had to swim the next day. So Kathleen, Kelsi (Worrell), Missy, Dana and a whole group of us in the village watched the 100 free and were all crying. And Maya coming from behind like that! That was so cool because I was there in the stands for 200 the back. Greg was right behind me, and I had the pleasure of training with him throughout camp. We were watching it and after the last turn she kicked past Katinka (Hosszu) -- and that never happens! -- and we were like, Holy Cow! Greg was wiping tears away and seeing that still makes my heart melt because he was so proud. He was like, “Excuse me, I have to go congratulate her” and he went to Maya. I felt like part of the Stanford family being around all their swimmers and their coach. So when they won NCAAs, I was just so elated for them; knowing so many of the girls, I just loved that so much. None of them are cocky. And they are all promoting what it means to be a student-athlete. Young girls see Simone and Katie at NCAAs or at Nationals or the Olympics, and think, “I want to be a part of that” and it’s so great for college swimming.
19. You got sick a few months ago, very reminiscent of a few years ago -- how did going through it before help you this time and maybe did the forced time off help a little bit?
Olivia: You’re just talking around Pro Swim Series Mesa. I felt so awful. I was so rundown. I did a super fun photo shoot for Swim United but then felt very lethargic. I had a fever for five days, and then found out I had mono again and that put a halt to my training really fast. But I listened to my doctors as much as my stubborn self would let me. I ate smart, no simple carbs, and got a lot of rest. I slept 10 hours a night. I think having it before, my body recovered faster. That full week to 10 days off, I took it easy, because I knew my spleen could rupture. I still did yoga and stretching. But I hadn’t had that week off after NCAAs, or even after the Olympics. So while the circumstances are not what I would have chosen, it worked out so well for me. My body needed the break. I got back for Atlanta and swam well despite only swimming singles, 4k once a day, leading up to that. So to have that meet coming off being sick and not much training really gave me confidence.
20. Speaking of proud, your younger brother, Matt, is a 6-foot, 170-pound wing moving up in the ice hockey world, how proud of you are him?
Olivia: Matt is the cooler sibling, hands down. He’s so funny, witty and popular, and although he’s younger, I look up to him because he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s a hard worker, he’s level headed, and he loves to have fun. That’s what I aspire to be like. He’s so excited to play in Canada and get better. We both have this thing -- we like to improve at the things we love to do. I can’t wait to watch his journey.