Olivia Smoliga details life in the ‘Budapest Bubble’ ahead of 2020 ISL Season

Olivia Smoliga ISL
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By Olivia Smoliga, as told to Megan Soisson

Editor’s Note: 2016 Olympic gold medalist Olivia Smoliga recently arrived in Budapest, Hungary, for the second season of the International Swimming League (ISL). The six-week season will take place with athletes living in a bubble environment on Margaret Island on the Danube River. Throughout the ISL season, Olivia – a member of the Cali Condors – will be sharing her experiences with On Her Turf. To kick off the series, Olivia details how she trained during quarantine, what it was like to travel internationally, and life in the ISL bubble.

Olympics Postponed

Back in March, the first sign that everything was really shutting down back was when NCAAs for college swimming were cancelled. I had been reading everything, buying toilet paper, and everything like that. But NCAAs were supposed to be at University of Georgia, where I train. And when they got cancelled, it was devastating. Especially for the seniors.

But in Georgia, the lockdown didn’t happen as quickly as in California or Illinois, where I’m from. It was much less strict, so we thought maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. Then all of a sudden – strict lockdown, strict curfew. And I was kind of scared. Nothing like this had ever happened before, at least not in my lifetime.

Initially, we were still able to train, even in the week after the Olympics were postponed. But at that time, I was thinking – what’s the point of going to practice right now? I love to swim, I love to be in the water. But I really didn’t mind the idea of taking a break because I felt like I needed to mentally reset… it was stressful just going to the pool with no Olympic Trials to swim for, no Olympics on the horizon.

When our pool ended up getting shut down, I decided to go home to Chicago. I got in my car and drove 13 hours to my parents’ house. They had a gym in their basement that I used to cross train. My brother came home too; he’s a hockey player so we trained together. I hadn’t been home for longer than 10 days at a time in eight years, and I ended up spending two full months there.

One of the families on my old club team in Chicago had a heated backyard pool. I really can’t complain, but I had already been out of the water for two weeks by that point. For swimmers, we lose the feel for the water pretty quickly. You feel like a noodle if you’re not in the water for longer than five or six days. I would swim in this backyard pool once a day, sometimes just for 30 minutes, and the intensity was pretty low.

I was at peace with taking a break, though. A mental break is so great, you get to reset and think about what really matters to you – family, friendships, all that.

Don’t get me wrong – with the Olympics postponed, there were moments when I questioned the future of the sport. And it’s devastating that thousands of families lost loved ones to COVID-19. For me, I was very thankful none of my friends or family were sick, and I try to take positives from anything that I go through.

I ended up going back to Georgia in July and we were lucky again because we could swim in these outdoor community pools. We’re used to eight-lane pools with starting blocks, and these were backyard pools with slides… but a pool’s a pool, and if you have a lane and you’re training, it’s all good.

We followed health guidelines and wore masks, checked our temperatures daily and got tested as much as we could. Two weeks ago we got back into our home pool at the University of Georgia.

Reimagining the ISL

In the midst of all this, the ISL, which was about to start its second season, completely changed its schedule. Originally there were supposed to be meets in half a dozen countries between September and February, but I knew there was just no way that could happen. I thought maybe they’d do some Zoom press conferences and social media, just to keep people aware that ISL still exists for next season.

Somehow, someway, they were able to create this schedule, so here we are in Budapest for the next six weeks.

The ISL has revolutionized the sport of swimming. We usually just have one major meet each summer – Pan Pacific Championships, World Championships or the Olympics. Just one chance every year to step up against our international competitors.

The ISL is different – it’s a league with 10 teams that compete in group-stage matches and then bracket-style semifinals and finals, like March Madness.

Olivia Smoliga, ISL

Each match weekend we’ll race three teams over the course of two days. The points will count toward reaching the semifinals – the top eight teams go to the semis, then four teams will advance to the final.

With the ISL, we’re racing more than ever. And especially now with the bubble, it’s back-to-back, week after week. It gives you so much more training and more experience. You get to learn how your competitors race and what it’s like to be in a ready room with them.

The biggest difference this year is that there won’t be fans in the arena. Three years ago, the World Championships were held here and let me tell you: Budapest turns up. When superstar Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu was racing, the entire arena roared for her. In the stands you could feel the ground shaking – that’s how loud they were cheering. It was so cool.

But even without all that, I still think we’ll get the hype. Our whole team will be on the sidelines, and the teams not competing that day will also be in the stands.

We did a walk-through dress rehearsal earlier and I’m walking out through the tunnel, looking around at this empty arena, and I still got butterflies. At the end of the day you still want to beat all the other teams, so you have to get hyped regardless.

I’m getting excited right now just thinking about it. I’m ready to race.

Budapest Bubble

Of course, we wouldn’t be able to race without proper protocols to keep us all safe and healthy.

Before we even left home, we took two COVID tests – not just for the ISL, but for Hungary’s government. We had to bring papers showing our negative tests and invitations that gave us a special exemption into the country.

Olivia Smoliga, travelling to Budapest

The day before we left, I couldn’t believe it – I was saying to my teammates, “We’re going to Budapest tomorrow? We’re really traveling internationally?” I literally felt like I was in a time warp.

On the plane we wore N95 masks the whole time. I had my own hand sanitizer and wipes, and some people wore face shields and goggles. People were very protected.

We took one COVID test when we arrived in Budapest, and then another one two days later. We’re all staying in our own rooms; we have taken over two hotels on Margaret Island on the Danube River.

Once our second test results came back negative, we were able to leave our rooms – and the day we got out happened to be my 26th birthday. I got to blow out a candle – socially distanced, of course – and my mom sent flowers. It felt very special, and it was awesome to see my friends again.

I feel very safe with everything they’re doing in the bubble. Now we’re getting tested every five days. We have to wear masks everywhere we go – we can only take them off when we’re in the dining halls. The dining halls have these cute little individual desks. It feels like you’re in class, but instead you’re having a meal with someone six feet apart.

Teams have designated times for when they can eat, and tables are disinfected in between meal sessions. There’s even a dinner time slot that starts at 9:30pm – which is so late compared to my usual 6pm dinner time; I may have to order UberEats on those nights!

Olivia Smoliga, ISL

The food is amazing, it’s great. But I feel like I’m a ball of energy because I want to talk to everyone so I’m burning more calories, I’m constantly hungry and eating snacks I brought from home that were supposed to last me five weeks.

In addition to wearing masks and staying socially distanced, there’s also a point system, and each team has a proctor who keeps track of everyone’s interactions. If you’re seen without a mask, you lose a point. If you’re seen shaking hands or hugging, you lose more points. If you lose too many points, or if you test positive and break quarantine, you can be banned from the event entirely.

We’re allowed to leave the hotel for a 90-minute recess each day – we can walk around the island but can’t go into the city itself. You sign out on a huge notepad in the hotel lobby and if you don’t come back in time you’ll have points deducted.

It’s strict – but I’m so glad they’re taking everything seriously. There are doctors monitoring everything so we feel really safe.

And the fact that we can actually race… is really cool. It’s awesome to finish the year like this and I’m so ready.

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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.