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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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.”

RELATED: 2023 March Madness 2023 — Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship