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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2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

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