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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2022 Rivalry Series: USA extends lead to 3-0 over Canada in women’s hockey showcase

Hilary Knight #21 of Team United States reacts after scoring a shorthanded goal in the second period during the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match.
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Hilary Knight had two goals and one assist to lead the U.S. women’s hockey team to a 4-2 win over Canada on Sunday, extending Team USA’s series lead to 3-0 in the seven-game 2022-23 Rivalry Series.

Savannah Harmon and Abby Roque also scored for the U.S., which has notched three consecutive wins against Canada for the first time since 2019. Goalie Nicole Hensley made 22 saves in front of a record-setting crown at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, where fan attendance totaled 14,551.

Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Nurse scored for Canada, which captured gold \at both the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September and the Beijing Olympics in February.

Knight has enjoyed a standout 2022-23 Rivalry Series to date, registering six points (three goals, three assists) in the first three games including the game-winning goal in a shootout victory in Game 1 of the series on Tuesday and the game-winning assist in Game 2 on Thursday. Prior to the puck drop in Seattle on Sunday, Knight was presented with a golden stick to commemorate her record-breaking 87th career point in world championship play. Knight became the all-time points leader at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September, when the eight-time world champion recorded one goal and one assist in Team USA’s 12-1 quarterfinal win over Hungary.

Sunday’s matchup between the U.S. and Canada marked the third game of the 2022-23 Rivalry Series and was the third matchup between the two teams in five days. The U.S. came in with a 2-0 series lead following a 2-1 victory on Thursday in Kamloops, B.C., and a 4-3 shootout victory — the first shootout in Rivalry Series history — in Kelowna, B.C., on Tuesday. It also was the first game for the U.S. national team on home soil since Dec. 17, 2021, when the team hosted Canada in St. Louis (Canada won 3-2 in overtime).

The 2022-23 Rivalry Series continues next month with two games in the U.S., set to be played in Las Vegas on Dec. 17 and Los Angeles on Dec. 19.


2022-23 Rivalry Series schedule, results

DATE TIME/RESULT LOCATION NETWORK
Tuesday, Nov. 15 USA 4, CAN 3 (SO) Kelowna, British Columbia NHL Network
Thursday, Nov. 17 USA 2, CAN 1 Kamloops, British Columbia NHL Network
Sunday, Nov. 20 USA 4, CAN 2 Seattle, Washington NHL Network
Thursday, Dec. 15 10 p.m. ET Henderson, Nevada NHL Network
Monday, Dec. 19 10 p.m. ET Los Angeles, California NHL Network
TBD TBD TBD NHL Network
TBD TBD TBD NHL Network

What is the Rivalry Series?

The Rivalry Series was introduced by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada during the 2018-19 season and designed as an annual showcase of the highest level of women’s hockey at various locations in the United States and Canada. The first series comprised three games between the two national teams, with Canada winning 2-1. Team USA took 2019-20 title, winning the expanded five-game series 4-1 and wrapping with an overtime win in the finale in front of a then-record-breaking total of 13,320 fans in Anaheim, California.

Following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic and preparation for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Rivalry Series resumed this season with seven games over three months: three in November, two in December and two in February.

The U.S. and Canada have battled in the gold-medal game of six of seven Winter Olympics and 20 of 21 IIHF Women’s World Championship, with the two exceptions being the 2019 World Championship and 2006 Olympics. The Canadian women are the reigning Olympic and world champions.


2022-23 Rivalry Series rewind: USA takes Games 1-2

Game 1 recap: USA 4, CAN 3, SO (Nov. 15): The series kicked off Tuesday with Team USA grabbing a 2-0 lead off goals from Hannah Brandt and Hilary Knight. But Canada battled back with three unanswered goals and held a 3-2 lead with 13 minutes to go in the third. With just 1:29 remaining in regulation, Alex Carpenter tied it for the Americans, sending the game to overtime. The U.S. ultimately won in a shootout, with Knight and Carpenter scoring while U.S. goalie Nicole Hensley made two key saves.

Game 2 recap: USA 2, CAN 1 (Nov. 17): Canada was first to get on the board Thursday when Marie-Philip Poulin capitalized off a penalty shot opportunity in the second period, but USA’s Kendall Coyne Schofield knotted the score just 1:12 later. Alex Carpenter scored the go-ahead tally with 6:36 remaining in the third to give the U.S. a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead. U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney recorded 19 saves in net.


Who’s playing in the 2022-23 Rivalry Series?

Team USA’s roster — led by coach John Wroblewski — for the November Rivalry Series games features 23 players, 16 of whom were part of the silver medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship in August:

  • Hannah Brandt (Vadnais Heights, Minn.)
  • Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.)
  • Kendall Coyne Schofield (Palos Heights, Ill.)
  • Jincy Dunne (O’Fallon, Mo.)
  • Aerin Frankel(Chappaqua, N.Y.)
  • Rory Guilday (Minnetonka, Minn.)
  • Savannah Harmon (Downers Grove, Ill.)
  • Nicole Hensley (Lakewood, Colo.)
  • Megan Keller (Farmington Hills, Mich.)
  • Amanda Kessel (Madison, Wis.)
  • Hilary Knight (Sun Valley, Idaho)
  • Kelly Pannek (Plymouth, Minn.)
  • Abby Roque (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.)
  • Hayley Scamurra (Getzville, N.Y.)
  • Maddie Rooney (Andover, Minn.)
  • Lee Stecklein (Roseville, Minn.).

Team Canada’s 23-player roster, selected by coach Troy Ryan and director of hockey operations Gina Kingsbury, features 16 players who were on the gold medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship and the 2022 Beijing Olympics (Canada beat , including:

  • Erin Ambrose
  • Kristen Campbell
  • Emily Clark
  • Ann-Renée Desbiens
  • Renata Fast
  • Brianne Jenner
  • Jocelyne Larocque
  • Emma Maltais
  • Emerance Maschmeyer
  • Sarah Nurse
  • Marie-Philip Poulin
  • Jamie Lee Rattray
  • Ella Shelton
  • Laura Stacey
  • Blayre Turnbull
  • Micah Zandee-Hart

Rivalry Series history

Following Sunday’s victory, the U.S. holds a 6-2-1-2 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record over Canada all time in the Rivalry Series. Canada won the 2018-19 Rivalry Series with a 2-0-0-1 record, while the U.S. won the 2019-20 Rivalry Series with a 3-1-1-0 record.

2019-20 Rivalry Series results

DATE RESULT LOCATION U.S. PLAYER OF THE GAME
Dec. 14, 2019 USA 4, CAN 1 Hartford, Connecticut Alex Cavallini
Dec. 17, 2019 USA 2, CAN 1 Moncton, N.B. Alex Carpenter
Feb. 3, 2020 CAN 3, USA 2 (OT) Victoria, B.C. Hilary Knight
Feb. 5, 2020 USA 3, CAN 1 Vancouver, B.C. Katie Burt
Feb. 8, 2020 USA 4, CAN 3 (OT) Anaheim, California Megan Bozek

2018-19 Rivalry Series results

DATE RESULT LOCATION
Feb. 12 USA 1, CAN 0 London, Ontario
Feb. 14 CAN 4, USA 3 Toronto, Ontario
Feb. 17 CAN 2, USA 0 Detroit Michigan

Atthaya Thitikul takes LPGA rookie-of-year honors in stride ahead of Tour Championship

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand smiles after the birdie on the 6th green during the second round of the TOTO Japan Classic.
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To say that Atthaya Thitikul has enjoyed a breakout rookie LPGA season is a bit of an understatement, but keeping things low-key is exactly how 19-year-old “Jeeno” likes it.

As the 2022 season concludes this week at the CME Group Tour Championship, Thitikul has already captured two LPGA titles, held the No. 1 spot in the world rankings and collected the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year honors. But the current world No. 2 displays a wise-beyond-her-years ethos when she says what she’s most proud of this season is her mindset.

“[I’m]19 years old — I think I’m still young to handle all the things that I have now,” Thitikul told On Her Turf ahead of this week’s season finale in Naples, Fla. “I didn’t say that I handled it well, but I’ve just said that I think I can handle it. I can do it. And yeah, it’s turned out to be pretty good this year.”

To keep herself in check, the Thailand native keeps her philosophy posted on her Instagram profile, which reads, “Be you, be happy and everything will be fine.” Thitikul, who on Oct. 31 joined 18-time LPGA winner Lydia Ko as the only players in tour history to reach No. 1 before their 20th birthday, said she took stock of poor performances on the golf course and found they all had one thing in common: She wasn’t being herself.

“I didn’t have fun,” she says of those unsatisfactory rounds. “I was expecting a lot of results on the golf course, not really talking, not really enjoying it. So I think being myself, have fun, keep smiling, keep laughing and talking with other players or talking with my caddie, joking around — I think it’s the best that I can do.”

Golf has always been fun for Thitikul, who grew up in northeast Thailand and was introduced to the sport at age 6 through her father and grandfather, both of whom were not golfers themselves but recognized the opportunity that golf might provide. Thitikul teases that her grandfather was enamored with Tiger Woods, but after her first golf experience with a professional in Bangkok, she was hooked, too.

“They asked me when I finished practicing, do I like it? And I say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Because [there were] a lot of friends and when I practice, it seemed fun and it seemed not like other sports that I have been watching on TV,” she recalls.

Thitikul’s ascent to the top of her sport was swift: In February 2017, just three days after her 14th birthday, she made her first LPGA tournament appearance at the Honda LPGA Thailand and finished 37th out of 66 players. Just five months later, Thitikul made headlines when she became the youngest person ever to win a professional golf tour event at age 14 years, 4 months and 19 days old, winning the Ladies European Thailand Championship on the Ladies European Tour (LET).

RELATED: 2022 CME Group Tour Championship — How to watch, who’s playing in LPGA’s season finale

For three more years, Thitikul resisted turning professional, racking up multiple international amateur victories and plenty of tour experience, notching her first LPGA top-10 finish in March 2018 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship (T-8) and earning low amateur honors that same year at two majors, the ANA Inspiration (T-30) and Women’s British Open (T-64). The following year, she won the Ladies European Thailand Championship for the second time in three years, earned low amateur honors at the British Open (finishing T-29) for the second straight year and was No. 1 on the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.

In her first year as a pro, during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, Thitikul broke through for her first professional win in July at the Thai LPGA Championship. She finished the season with five Thai LPGA wins and topped the money list.

Thitikul moved to the LET in 2021, winning the Czech Ladies Open in June, and just a month later she moved into the top 100 on the world rankings for the first time at No. 89. She finished 2021 with two wins, three runner-ups and nine additional top-10 finishes, securing the LET Order of Merit and Rookie of the Year titles and becoming just the fourth player to win both awards in the same season.

After finishing third at LPGA Qualifying School to earn her card for 2022, Thitikul didn’t miss a beat in her meteoric rise this season. She posted two top-10s in her first four starts before striking a staff deal with Callaway, which she followed up by winning her first LPGA title in March at the JTBC Classic. She carded an 8-under 64 in the final round to force a playoff and Nanna Koerstz Madsen on the second extra hole. She earned her second LPGA title in September at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, tying the tournament record of 61 in the second round and beating Danielle Kang in a playoff.

As for the pressure of being a teen phenom, Thitikul admits she can’t ignore it but has figured out how to turn it around to her advantage: “It’s still so hard because I think as players want to be on top and we put the pressure on ourselves, and there’s a lot of eyes on us. … But at the same time, it’s kind of like you couldn’t win every week, you couldn’t have a good day every day. It’s golf. I like to think of pressure as a challenge. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think of it as challenging.”

Away from the golf course, Thitikul enjoys spending time with friends, watching Korean television dramas and indulging in Asian food (Chinese and Korean are favorites). Although she doesn’t have a pet, she says she’s a dog person, and prefers the mountains to the beach, as she loves to hike.

But don’t expect too much lounging, hiking or other non-golf activities on Thitikul’s itinerary after this season wraps on Sunday.

“This offseason, we have a lot of work to do,” she says.” There are a lot of things I still have to learn – not just for next year but for [beyond.] … But hopefully next year, it’s going to be nice and good for me as well. I really want to have a major win in my career. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year, but hopefully.”