Erica Sullivan has experienced her fair share of growing pains over the past few years.
It began when her father passed away in 2017. He had been her mentor, her friend, her biggest cheerleader for her entire career, and within three months of being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he was gone.
Shortly after that, she came out as being gay, and the combination of her dad’s death, being outed and swimming at a highly stressful level was overwhelming for her.
Her mental health suffered, but she remained true to herself throughout, persevered and discovered that, just like swimming, life is tough, unpredictable and not always fun – but hard work and commitment ultimately pay off.
“He was diagnosed in April 2017, and he passed in July 2017,” Sullivan said of her father, John, who swam for the University of Wisconsin. “Growing up, I’d go to Japan to visit family. He’d find a pool for me to train at. He always kept me on top of my game. He was my motivator. He kept me sharp.
“After he passed, it was hard for a really long time. I know he wanted me to keep training through a lot of it. So I did. And I made the National Team for the first time four weeks after he passed. So that’s a really nice feeling. Like, ‘hey, look what I did.’ I’d like to think he’d be proud of me where I am right now.”
Amidst dealing with the death of her father along with gaining confidence in her sexuality, Sullivan, who committed to swim for the University of Southern California (USC) as a 16-year-old, was finding herself as one of the top distance freestylers and open water swimmers in the world.
Between 2017 and 2019, she swam her way into a National Championship in the 5K at Open Water U.S. Nationals and qualified for 2019 Open Water World Championships and crept her way into the top-5 in the United States in both the 800 and 1500 freestyle events in the pool.
Before COVID-19 shut down pools and the world at large this past March, Sullivan was well on her way to being a force at Olympic Trials this past summer and possibly earning a spot on her first Olympic team – particularly with her best event, the 1500 free, being a new Olympic event in 2020.
Like everyone else, she was forced to adapt to the world’s new normal – and she’s convinced the experience made her a better swimmer and competitor.
“It’s been hard,” Sullivan said of her post-COVID training experience. “(When pools closed), I was swimming in my family friend’s backyard. But things are starting to get back to normal.
“We’re starting to train in some pools again. And even though it’s one to a lane, we’re definitely making due with what we have. So, we’ve been lucky.”
After the shutdown, the conversations about the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, and almost simultaneously, U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, started.
Sullivan said the ultimate decision to wait until 2021 to select the U.S. Olympic team and hold the Games in Japan didn’t come as a surprise.
She was ready for it.
“I think we all saw it coming because they were waiting for so long,” she said. “And it was a 'will they, won’t they' kind of thing. When it was canceled, we were all like, ‘ok, yeah this is happening.’
“But believe it or not, this extra year has been tough. I have struggled a lot with it. But, at the end of the day, everyone’s struggling and it’s just a different date to push back on our calendars. And Tokyo 2021 – let’s throw down.”
While all of this craziness was happening throughout the world, Sullivan was just coming out on the positive end of some difficult decisions and emotional transitions that continue to shape her as a person and swimmer.
Despite having been committed to USC for a few years, she ultimately decided, due to her own personal growth and some changes in personnel at USC, that this was no longer the best route for her educational and swimming careers.
In the meantime, while she continues to prepare for Trials next summer, Sullivan has decided to attend the University of Texas once the Olympics are complete.
“I am just such a different person now than when I was 16 (and committed to USC),” Sullivan said. “So much had changed. It wasn’t the same school that it was when I committed.
“And lucky enough, Mitch Dalton was at UT and Carol Capitani was at UT, and there’s just such a good staff behind me there. And I fell in love with the team and the school, and the environment, and I’m super excited to go to Austin.”
During all of this swimming flux, Sullivan has also continued the process of accepting who she is and what her role is within the LGBTQ+ family.
She said she has enjoyed tremendous acceptance from her swimming family, and she hopes that, through all of her own trials and tribulations as a queer woman, she is able to be a role model and sounding board for other young gay swimmers as they traverse their own journey of self-acceptance.
“At the end of the day, I can do nothing but own it and be myself,” she said. “And if that can inspire anyone else to come out, that’s just amazing to me. I hope I can be a good role model to them.
“I get so many messages and I can’t respond to them all, but if they need someone to talk to, their voice will be heard. I want to let them know that at the end of the day, I’m just a person, too, just as much as they are. If I got through it, so can they. I’d love to be a beacon of hope. I’d love to be that role model. It just gets better and that’s a message that everyone needs to hear every once in a while.”
But at the forefront of Sullivan’s mind for the next 7-plus months is earning a spot on the 2021 Olympic Team – a feat that would be a dream come true for Sullivan.
She’s wanted to be an Olympian ever since she was a kid, and now that she’s on the cusp of realizing that dream, she says it’s rather unbelievable – especially when she breaks down her competition and the roles that they have played in her swimming life over her career.
“It’s still crazy to me looking back because I used to look up to Haley (Anderson) and Ashley (Twichell) so much, and now that I’m lucky enough to call them my friends as well as competitors, and I text them as often as I do, it’s just a bizarre feeling for me and it will never not be bizarre.”
And if she accomplishes this dream and gets to join her teammates on the plane to Tokyo next summer, she knows her dad – her biggest supporter for so many years – will be right there with her on her journey.
Just as he’s been guiding her through the past few years.
“It would be amazing (to make the Olympic team),” she said. “I’ll be on top of the world. I’ll feel like the strongest person alive for the next 30 minutes following. And I know my dad will be there cheering me on. In fact, he would be wreck (watching her compete). He was such an emotional fellow. He’d be crying for days on end.
“But with several months left before Trials, we’re going to throw down like there’s no tomorrow. We’re going to do everything we can to be in tip-top shape for June.”
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