By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Olivia Smoliga never expected to win a world title last month when she went to Istanbul, Turkey, to compete at Short Course World Championships.
She went to the event – fresh from a summer and fall that included setting two national high school records at the Illinois state championships, including Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce’s mark in the 50 freestyle, a strong Olympic Trials, and multiple titles at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships – to learn and gain experience.
When she left, she not only had accomplished both but also returned home with an unexpected but not unearned world title in the 100 backstroke.
“I just went (into Worlds) just hoping to meet new people and live in the moment of being surrounded by so many Olympians,” said Smoliga, who also won a national high school title for Glenbrook South High School in the 100 backstroke this past October. “I wanted to learn new things from all the coaches and soak up the atmosphere of my first senior-level international meet.
“When I re-watch the 100 back, I still can’t believe I won. It’s pretty sweet, and I am beyond happy – not to mention that the entire team was so supportive and awesome. The experience taught me that anything is possible, I wanted to maybe get top 3, but coming out on top is icing on the cake of a great meet.”
Based upon the year she had leading up to Short Course Worlds, Smoliga’s win wasn’t really all that huge of a surprise despite her very limited experience on the world stage. In June at Olympic Trials, she finished fourth in the 100 backstroke and missed out on making the Olympic team by a couple of spots.
She said she went into Trials thinking she could make the team because her training was all there. When she came so close yet failed to make the top two and the team headed to London, Smoliga said she was definitely bummed and she initially found it hard to think about the positives coming out the meet like going a best time and making the finals.
“After a little while, it lit a fire in me and made me excited for the road ahead,” Smoliga said. “I slowly overcame my combination of disappointment and motivation from Trials and used it to my advantage.”
Add in her performance at high school nationals, where she became the first sub-.22 second female swimmer in high school history in the 50 free (21.99), along with her strong showing in Hawaii at Junior Pan Pacs in August, and all the stars were aligned for Smoliga to make a title run in Turkey.
“I took a lot away from these past few months; it’s been so fun and exciting,” she said. “The Olympic Trials were insane. I loved being there and now I have this great experience under my belt. It totally lit a fire under me to train and get better throughout these next 4 years. But I’d have to say that going to Hawaii for the Junior Pan Pac trip (where she won the 100 backstroke and was a member of the gold-medal-winning 400 freestyle relay team and finished second in the 50 freestyle) was the most fun I’ve ever had.
“The location, the team, the coaches and the races were so memorable. I know that I should have a thing that I’ll remember most that has to do with a specific race itself, but I will remember the Junior Pan Pac team and going cliff diving in the North Shore of Hawaii while watching the distance swimmers rock the 10K (won by Becca Mann and David Heron of the United States). It was a beautiful setting and I’ll have those memories forever.”
With her college decision made (she’ll attend and swim for the University of Georgia next fall), a “relieved” Smoliga said she is looking forward to being a part of an amazing team that she hopes will “make history.”
She admits making her college choice was a very difficult decision, experiencing a few stressful weeks in the process, but she chose Georgia because of its southern vibe as well as the amazing team she will be joining.
Still, at the core of her choice was the opportunity to train under esteemed National and Olympic Coach Jack Bauerle and make the most of the connection she made with him.
“I also fell in love with Coach Jack (Bauerle); he got me so excited for this next chapter in my life talking about the Olympics and NCAAs,” said Smoliga, who also considered the University of Texas and University of Southern California (USC).
Having grown up dreaming about swimming in the Olympics, Smoliga said her goal of being in strong contention to make her first team in 2016 is also one of the biggest reasons she chose Georgia. She said she firmly believes Bauerle will help her make the necessary strides over the next four years to get there.
“I think that any swimmer my age at these past Trials thought that they could make the Olympic team just because if you tell yourself that ‘maybe in 4 years I’ll have a better chance,’ you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure,” Smoliga said. “My coach, family, and I believed in me 100 percent of the way and I think after Trials were done, I was like, ‘Okay, 2016 here I come.
“This year has definitely given me a lot of confidence. I really want to do well at Nationals and hopefully make the World Champ Team, and if I put in the hard training with my coach, I think I will hit my times there. I want to build up my endurance during practice and gain some more muscle strength (much needed) in order to compete with some of the big dogs.”