Olympic gold medalist Olivia Smoliga, a rising star for U.S. Swimming, went from “hating” the sport of swimming to making a career out of it.
Smoliga, a Glenview native, made a splash at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. After swimming a personal-best 58.82 in the 100-meter backstroke semifinals, Smoliga missed out on making the Olympic team after finishing fourth in the finals. (The top two swimmers of every race qualify for the Olympic team.)
That made Smoliga even more determined to come back in four years stronger and faster.
And that’s exactly what she did.
At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, Smoliga beat out her childhood idols Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin in the 100-meter backstroke by finishing in first place and cementing her spot on the Team USA.
Smoliga didn’t place in Rio de Janeiro Games in the 100-meter backstroke, but she did win gold as a member of the 4×100-meter medley relay. And now, her sights are set on Tokyo 2020.
“[Growing up] I wanted to be in the same sentence of the likes of Natalie Coughlin, who’s huge, or Missy Franklin,” Smoliga said. “Now, I train with Missy Franklin.”
But there was a time when Smoliga’s life wasn’t totally dedicated to the pool like it is now.
Growing up, Smoliga’s parents signed her up for just about everything: volleyball, jazz, ballet and swimming. She also went to Irish dance lessons although her family was of Polish descent.
Smoliga had a love-hate relationship with swimming. She often suffer ear infections from the pool’s water. Her doctor and coaches recommended that she wore ear plugs.
“They were hot pink wax things I had to stick in my ears,” Smoliga said. “It was annoying, embarrassing and kind of painful.”
But ever since Smoliga learned how to use her adversity as motivation, her career has snowballed.
After missing the Olympic cut in 2012, Smoliga won big at the Illinois State High School Championship later that year. She broke the national high school records in November 2012 for both the 100 yard backstroke (51.43) and 50 yard freestyle (21.99).
“I think people stick with something because they love doing it or because they’re good at it,” Smoliga said. “And I think I got lucky with loving swimming and being good at it.”
Between Summer Games, Smoliga went on to have a successful NCAA career at the University of Georgia, where she graduated in May with a degree in psychology. She currently hold three school records including the 50 freestyle (21.21), 100 freestyle (46.70) and 100 backstroke (50.58).
Smoliga, who is currently training in Georgia for this year’s national championships next month, has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In April, she set the American record for the 50-meter backstroke with a time of 27.46.
“I think getting the American record in the 50 back was a huge stepping stone for me,” said Smoliga, who is expected to qualify at nationals for the Pan-Pacific Championship in Tokyo in August. “It kind of just gives me confidence going in and lets me know I can swim fast when I’m tired.”