By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, May 31, 2019
Even though she’s an Olympic and World Championship gold medalist, Olivia Smoliga is a prime example that you’re never too young, old or experienced to learn something.
That’s what happened last summer at Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo. Two years removed from her first Olympics and fourth place finish in the 100 backstroke at 2017 World Championships, Smoliga finished ninth in the same event at Pan Pacs – a surprising disappointment considering she was one of the meet favorites going in.
“Pan Pacs really were a major learning experience,” she said. “For me, it was the worst meet I’d ever had. I felt out of shape, not mentally there and just passively rolling with whatever came my way and I don’t think I took myself seriously.
“It was a pretty big wake up call for me, but I am so grateful because I feel like I’ve just slowly and passionately turned everything around.”
A few months later at FINA Short Course World Championships in Hangzhou, China, Smoliga definitely did just that.
She left with a meet-high eight gold medals – six of them from relays – and re-established herself as someone to be reckoned with this year and next year heading into Olympic Trials and the next Olympic Games.
She felt redeemed – even though she didn’t expect to swim in so much at the meet.
“I wasn’t expecting to get 8 golds at all, just because I didn’t anticipate being in so many events,” she said. “But I have never been as confident going into a meet as I was for Short Course Worlds. I didn’t even really set ‘goals’ prior to the meet. I just went in knowing my potential, I guess, and going for it.
“I, of course, felt on top of the world, but my performances didn’t feel unexpected because I knew the training I put in beforehand and trusted in that.”
Smoliga, who lives and trains in Athens, Ga., said she is pushed by the “stacked” post-grad group of swimmers she trains with every day.
“That makes training intense and really fun,” she said.
Along with that push in the pool, Smoliga credits her continued ascension among the swimming ranks to a change in her mentality.
She describes it as an “all-around change” – feeling that her mental game has improved not only with her training in the pool, but in the weight room, with how and what she eats, how she recovers and how she prepares for each new day.
“I’ve become a lot more thankful, I think, for each opportunity to improve every day – big or small,” she said. “I have to attribute this change of mindset to a few camps I took in the past several months. I was surrounded by just absolutely incredible teammates (not that I’m not surrounded by great teammates at home in Georgia, but it was a different group, which always brings change).
“These teammates and their mentality and overall aura inspired me. That’s another thing – the inspiration I gather to be the best I can be, comes from all around me. I try to attract the exact energy I want to embody so that I can be my best, and that’s been a big change, too.”
Two years now into her professional career, Smoliga said not a lot has changed, but what has – more time to chill and recover properly with no school – has shown her how important nutrition and recovery are because she has more time to think about it.
She said this winter and spring have been great for her – training and finding new ways to get better.
She competed at TYR Pro Swim Series events in Knoxville, Des Moines and Richmond and has been feeling really strong and excited to go to World Championships later this summer.
“It’s like 7 weeks away, and I think about it every day just smiling at how fun it’ll be to race,” said Smoliga, who will compete in the 50 and 100 backstroke events in South Korea but continues to train and focus on the sprint freestyles as well. “At this point in my career, I look for improvement and progress so I will just keep it rolling meet after meet.
“I really don’t set goals anymore in keeping with the mentality of just improving — it makes success more fluid to me rather than concrete. If I improve, big or small, that’s what matters. I keep specifics to myself, but I guess we’ll all just see when Worlds come around.”
Whatever happens this summer at Worlds, Smoliga said next summer’s Olympic Trials – her third as a competitor and fourth in Omaha (she was a spectator at 2008 Trials) – will have special meaning to her.
Three years ago, she earned a spot on her first Olympic team, and this time around, her focus will be on not only making the team but earning an individual medal in Tokyo.
“I absolutely love Omaha. I have so many great memories there,” said Smoliga, whose parents and brother were able to make the trip to Rio in 2016 to see her compete. “I look forward to swimming there every time, and I can’t wait to go back and see what else I can do.
“My Olympic experience fell way short of what I wanted it to be. Of course, it was an honor to be a part of the prelim relay that won gold at night, but in my mind, it didn’t suffice. I wanted my individual performance to be better, and I wanted to be on a finals relay. I do put everything in perspective though, it was my first time and I learned so much from it that I will carry with me and I’m thankful for that.”