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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