Olivia Smoliga poses with her medal at the FINA World Swimming Championships on Dec. 15, 2018 in Hangzhou, China.
Olivia Smoliga never expected to feel like a celebrity in, of all places, Hangzhou, China.
But there she was, climbing out of the pool at the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) after winning the 50- and 100-meter backstrokes, and fans were yelling her name.
“In the stands, they were just like ‘Olivia, Olivia, up here!’” she said. “I was like, ‘You know my name!’ It was really cool for me.”
And then following the medal ceremonies, Chinese volunteers crowded the hallway, stopping Smoliga for pictures.
“It was kind of like a paparazzi moment for me,” she said.
Smoliga had a lot of walks down that hallway after winning a record eight gold medals at a swimming world championships.
Going eight-for-eight made her a big deal outside Hangzhou as well. The 2016 Olympian certainly raised her profile as a force to reckon with in the run-up to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. She set American records in her two individual events and was part of two world records and a championship record on relays.
“She’s just sort of coming into her own, which is a scary thought for some of her competitors,” said Jack Bauerle, the former Olympic coach who coached Smoliga at the University of Georgia.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say scare people,” Smoliga said with a laugh. “For me, it’s a great momentum and confidence builder. I hope people realize that I’m ‘on,’ and definitely I don’t think it should be taken lightly. I’m here to swim fast and hopefully carry the momentum into the next meet.
“I view it as a really big stepping-stone for myself.”
The previous record of seven medals was shared by Caeleb Dressel (2017) and Michael Phelps (2007). However, their performances were at the long course world championships, which are more recognized because they are the Olympic distance of 50 meters. The short course worlds are held in a 25-meter pool. (There also were fewer relay events in 2007 and a false start deprived Phelps of another medal chance.)
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Going into the meet, Smoliga expected to swim the 50 and 100 backstrokes and maybe a couple of relays. Kathleen Baker, who set the long course world record in the 100 back in 2017 and was the 2016 Olympic silver medalist, was the top-ranked American.
Once the meet started with the 100 back in the prelims, the ball kind of got rolling,” Smoliga said. “I was thrilled with how this meet went.”
She swam a blistering 55.47 seconds in the 100 back heats on the first morning to smash Baker’s American record by almost half a second.
When Smoliga went on to win the event, defeating Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu, the “Iron Lady” from Hungary, she earned a spot on more relays, including mixed medley relays. Smoliga even swam some freestyle relay legs, although on two of those relays she swam the morning preliminaries and not the final.
Teammate Kelsi Dahlia left Hangzhou with more medals, accumulating nine, with seven gold, one silver and one bronze. She competed in the individual butterfly events and the same relays as Smoliga.
The number eight is considered the luckiest number in Chinese culture because it sounds like the word for “wealth,” “fortune” and “prosper” in Chinese. The 2008 Olympic Games started on 8/8/2008.
“My mom asked, ‘How was this meet different from other meets?” Smoliga said. “It hasn’t been successful meet after successful meet for myself, personally.”
Smoliga pondered the question. She realized that a camp at Stanford in October with swimmers including multi-Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel inspired an attitude adjustment.
“I’m not at their level yet, but I aspire to be,” said Smoliga, 24. “I came back and I just had this whole new mentality. I’m no longer a collegiate athlete, so I just wanted to give myself the opportunity to take myself seriously as a professional athlete and do everything I possibly could, all the right things to have a successful meet.”
Going into Hangzhou, she knew that she was prepared. Smoliga thought, “It’s time to go and show off a little bit.”
She sure did.
She won her first gold in the women’s 4x100 freestyle where she swam leadoff and was joined by Lia Neal, Mallory Comerford and Dahlia.
Smoliga swam the backstroke leg in the preliminaries of the mixed 4x50 free, but didn’t swim the final that night. She was busy enough, leading off the women’s 200 medley relay, which ended in a world record for her and teammates Katie Meili, Dahlia and Comerford and winning the 100 back to reclaim the title she won in 2012 in Istanbul.
Smoliga’s fourth medal came in the 200 mixed medley relay. Coaches decide which legs should be swum by males and which by females, and Smoliga was one of only three women swimming backstroke. She had men on either side of her and posted a time of 25.85. Michael Andrew swam breaststroke, Dahlia butterfly and Dressel brought Team USA home in a world record time of 1:36.40.
Smoliga won the women’s 50 back with an American record of 25.88, then swam the prelims in the women’s 200 free relay.
On the last day, Smoliga swam leadoff in the women’s 4x100 medley relay with a time of 55.86 that beat her nearest competitor by a second. With Meili, Dahlia and Comerford, Team USA crushed the championship record.
That race was particularly satisfying for Smoliga since she had been disappointed with her time in the final of the 100 back after such a fast prelim.
“I think I maybe fought the water too hard in my semifinal and final swim rather than just relaxing and trusting myself,” she said. “So by the last day, I was like, ‘You had a great meet, you’ve done your work, let’s just go for it on this one and have a great last swim.’”
Smoliga also credits “being on a relay with girls who are counting on you” for getting her in the right frame of mind.
“She’s the ultimate gamer,” Bauerle said. “When it’s more important, she’s absolutely at her best, which I think is the sign of a great athlete.”
He said when Georgia pulled an upset to win the NCAA title in 2016, “She was an absolute warrior through the whole thing. She did everything but take the splits.”
The meet came down to the final relay between Georgia and Stanford.
“We knew what we had to do and they had to do,” Bauerle said. “She said, ‘Jack I can’t stand listening, what do I have to do?’”
He told her what time she had to swim on the leadoff leg. She did, her teammates followed suit and Georgia won.
“When it comes to pressure now that I’m no longer on a college team, it’s just pressure that comes from within myself,” Smoliga said.
She’s felt the weight of expectations since she was 17 and coached by Steve Iida in Glenview, Illinois.
Despite no training in long course pools during high school, Smoliga went into the finals at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming ranked third after setting a personal best of 59.82 in the semifinals.
“I was like, ‘Aw, one spot and I got this,’” Smoliga said. “I ended up finishing fourth overall. That was heartbreaking for me. I set my expectations super, super, super high and then I fell short, but I learn from my failures more than my successes.
“I still think about 2012 all the time. It kind of puts things in perspective for me.”
Because her parents, Tom and Elizabeth, emigrated from Poland in 1991, Smoliga could have tried to represent the Polish team in London. She had received overtures during high school.
“But I had been on junior national teams as a high schooler and experienced what it was like to be on Team USA,” Smoliga said, “and there’s nothing like it – the looks that you get when you walk on deck, the red, white and blue gear that you have. You’re held to a much higher standard, you have more responsibility, and it’s like the biggest privilege in the world.”
And, she added, “even if I had the chance, I don’t like taking the easy way out of anything.”
Smoliga was determined to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team and won the trials in the 100 back, defeating 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, her idol, and Missy Franklin, the reigning Olympic champion.
But in Rio, things turned sour. Despite a personal best time of 58.95 seconds (which she lowered last year to 58.75), Smoliga finished sixth in the 100 back. She did take home a gold medal for swimming the prelims of the medley relay.
“Although it was successful that I made the team, I had a terrible Olympic experience and performance,” Smoliga said, “so I learned from that and try to build off of that every year.”
She believes she neglected to plan for the next step after achieving her goal of simply making the team.
“So when I got to the Olympics, I froze,” Smoliga said. “I didn’t really know what to expect.”
She now understands that she has to treat the Games like any other meet. “You’ve just got to race,” Smoliga said. “So I’m glad that I got those experiences under my belt and that it happened when I was young so that I can learn from it.”
She also gained insight into how to handle coming back from such a high. Even though she didn’t have a great Games, by making the team, Smoliga said, “Your life goal is achieved at 21. I’m on a team with Michael Phelps. That’s crazy to me, and you come back and you hit such a low, low point, and it was definitely a struggle for me to bounce back and get back into college training.”
As a psychology major, Smoliga said she wishes she had tapped into her emotions more and expressed them, but she’s better now at reflecting on all of her experiences – positive and negative.
For example, Smoliga was out-touched three times in individual events at the NCAA meet her senior year.
At the time, she rationalized that Manuel, the Olympic champion, beat her in the 100 freestyle, and Baker, the Olympic silver medalist, beat her in the 100 back, so it “made sense.”
“Now, looking back, I’m mad that I had that type of thinking, that it’s OK that they beat me because they’re medalists.,” Smoliga said.
“I should have gone in with all the confidence in the world that I could beat them. I should have believed in myself a little bit more like I do now.”
Smoliga has already qualified for the 50 and 100 backstrokes at next year’s long course world championships in South Korea. She still trains at Georgia, where she is mainly coached by Brian Smith, and hopes to make the 2020 Olympic team in freestyle – with six slots allotted on the relay – as well.
Smoliga has also added the 200 back to her repertoire.
At 6-foot-2, she has the gift of length for backstroke and freestyle, and is working in the weight room to increase her strength.
“Time is flying,” Smoliga said. “Even though it was two years ago, 2016 feels like yesterday and 2019 is coming upon us so quickly with the world championships. And the Olympics is right around the corner. It’s so crazy how fast time flies.”
And she’s been doing some flying herself.