Olivia Smoliga: I was so excited to race again that my hands were shaking

Olivia Smoliga
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By Olivia Smoliga, as told to Megan Soisson

Editor’s Note: 2016 Olympic gold medalist Olivia Smoliga is currently in Budapest, Hungary, for the second season of the International Swimming League (ISL). Athletes are living in a bubble environment on Margaret Island on the Danube River. Throughout the six-week season, Olivia – a member of the Cali Condors – is sharing her experiences with On Her Turf

Two meets down here in Budapest and so far it’s been awesome – so awesome. Like I mentioned in my first post, I had butterflies in my stomach just doing a walk-through dress rehearsal. The day of the first match, I had this mix of full-body excitement and nervousness hours before racing even began. That feeling in your stomach… I couldn’t even eat. Most of my teammates on Cali Condors were the same way – we were all just so excited. We were a little nervous too, because we were going up against really good teams, like defending champion Energy Standard. And for all of us it was our first meet in over six months.

Olivia Smoliga

I finally got to go through my meet-day routines: packed up my racing suit, my cap, goggles, and then made sure I had doubles of everything, just in case. When I got to the pool, I felt shaky throughout my body, from deep down in my core all the way to the outside. I felt that way the whole time – from warmups to the ready room.

The biggest challenge was putting on my racing suit – it had been so long that I forgot how tight it was. Seven minutes of carefully pulling a very small suit onto my body – I was out of practice but I got through it!

My first event of the meet was the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay. Erika Brown led off, and I went second. As she was finishing her leg I stepped onto the starting block and extended my arms out towards the water like I always do to prepare for my start. This time, though, my hands were visibly shaking. I felt the energy and was so excited to just race.

Once I finished my leg I cheered on my team for the rest of the race (we finished 3rd), but then the clock started ticking because I had just a few minutes until my next event, the 50 free. We grabbed our belongings from behind the blocks and went straight to the diving well to warm down. My body was under a lot of stress – not just emotionally but with serious lactic acid buildup. I swam a few laps and then called out to a team manager to find out how much time I had left.

“Three minutes.”

Three minutes?! And that’s when I started to feel it – I needed to throw up.

So I did.

And it was fine.

I wasn’t the only one who experienced this either. Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, who swims on Team Energy Standard, competes in a similar lineup of races and she posted a picture of a bucket in the gutter of the diving well, just in case. With so much back-to-back racing and not a lot of time to rest in between events, the lactic acid builds up – a lot of people are in the same boat.

Once I got that – literally – out of my system, I was ready for my second race. I ran back into the ready room and walked out through the tunnel for the 50 free. I remember behind the blocks taking three deep breaths and telling myself, Okay, you just have to make it happen. You have to score some points here.

I finished 3rd again – pretty good considering the quick turnaround.

After that, it slowed down a bit before my 50 back. That race felt so good, and smooth – like butter. I could hear my teammates cheering, which was awesome When I finished, somebody told me that I had broken my own American record. The ISL is held in a 25-meter pool, which we don’t race in very often, so it didn’t register that I had posted a best time.

And then they told me I was really close to the world record – and I thought, dang! But we have time the rest of the season, we have time.

Each match takes place over two days, so at the end of the first day the emotions began to calm down a bit and – I could finally take a little breath. But even after all the emotions of the day I still couldn’t fall asleep until 3 am. My sleep schedule here has not been the best – because our overall schedule hasn’t been consistent. Some days we have practice at 7:30 in the morning, other days it’s at 9:30 and sometimes we have the whole morning off. Plus, maybe because I went so long without traveling, adjusting to jet lag has been brutal – the hardest adjustment to a time change that I’ve ever experienced. Usually I’m patting myself on the back for how quickly I adjust, but this time it’s been pretty tough. I think everyone is struggling a bit more than usual, and we’ve been here for a few weeks already.

After I finally got to sleep, the next day of competition was a little bit more even-keeled. And my team, Cali Condors, won!

Olivia Smoliga, Natalie Hinds
Walking around Margaret Island with my Cali Condors teammate Natalie Hinds

Up next was a block of training, because we’re just eight months away from the Tokyo Olympics. Even though we’re in Budapest, the training is what we would normally do back home. We have a volunteer assistant coach from our pro team at Georgia who’s here with us, and he gets practices sent from home for me and the rest our UGA crew: Natalie Hinds, Melanie Margalis, Nic Fink, Veronica Burchill and Gunnar Bentz.

Sometimes people will jump in with us for certain practices, depending on what they need – Sherridon Dressel, from Florida, and Kelsey Dahlia, from Louisville, have joined us here and there, too. It’s nice to have a familiar face coaching us to help us stay on track. It keeps us honest, and it feels like our normal home environment.

The Olympics are always in the back of my mind. So the training is important, but practicing the racing is just as critical. It’s mental, it’s emotionally taxing, it’s really an investment.

For the events that I swim, it’s very beneficial to just get up on the blocks and race because that’s a totally different use of muscle memory than what you do at practice. When you race, you get to utilize your mental capacity, and go through very specific details: you have to hype yourself up, and then bounce back if you don’t have a good swim. You deal with all these outside factors, like reactions from social media (that we probably shouldn’t be reading anyway) that might throw you off. Having the opportunity to snap back to the plan – racing here for the ISL – is perfect practice for when we get to an even bigger stage.

And as much as I trust myself that competing here in Budapest is the best thing for me to be doing right now, what’s giving me yet another layer of trust is that my coaches are supportive and believe this is great for me, and that it’s part of the bigger plan for Olympic Trials in June and the Olympics in July.

We had our second match last weekend, and I felt so much more prepared. We knew what to expect with the schedule and timeline of events, which gave us so much more control over everything that was happening. That first match, I felt like I was scrambling a bit – there was so much for my eyes to look at and time seemed to move by so quickly. In the second match, things felt a little more comfortable.

Olivia Smoliga ISL
My mom sent me this photo. She has been watching my races on TV

What wasn’t comfortable, though, was the “Skins” race that I did at the end of the second day of the second match. The Skins races are unique to the ISL, but essentially it’s a series of three back-to-back, knockout-style 50-meter races. The stroke is determined by the team that wins the 4×100 medley relay, and since we won the relay, we chose backstroke. After the first round, the top four swimmers advance to the second round, then the top two swimmers advance to the final.

You have just three minutes to rest in between rounds. You can do some easy swimming, shake out your legs, get out of the pool and walk around the deck or get a quick massage, whatever works for you in those 180 seconds. It’s a challenge, but we do sets like these at the end of practice all the time – except instead of three rounds, it could be up to 12.

In between rounds I was telling myself, Let’s go, you got it, you got it, no problem, no problem. I was playing this game with my mind that so many swimmers are familiar with – just tricking myself into thinking I was alright, that I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t sore. I was taking deep breaths and trying to stay calm.  It’s all mental.

I made it through the first round into the top four, and after the second round it was me and my Condors teammate Beata Nelson who made it into the final. In hindsight we could have turned it off for the final, but we wanted to show up and finish the race the way it’s meant to be finished. And that’s exactly what we did – and it helped us win, so our team is 2-0.

We have another training block before our next match – so for now, I’m going to enjoy a day off and the Pad Thai that I just had delivered to my hotel room.

Go Dors!

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