Olivia Smoliga: I’ll carry this momentum to Olympic Trials, Tokyo Games

Olivia Smoliga ISL Cali Condors
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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). Throughout the six-week season, Olivia – a member of the Cali Condors – has been sharing her experiences with On Her Turf:

This weekend, the Cali Condors will be one of four teams competing in the 2020 ISL Final. Ahead of the season finale, and with eight months until the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, here is Olivia’s third and final dispatch from Budapest.  


Here we are – after six weeks living in a bubble in Budapest – we are almost at the end of season 2 of the ISL. As I reflect, I think about how crazy it is that our time here is almost complete. I can’t believe it.

Of course, though, the most exciting part is still to come with the final this weekend.

The ISL bubble has been like a training trip to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado – but way more fun, since we’re competing. But otherwise? This is kind of just a swimmer’s lifestyle. Eat, sleep, swim, repeat. I’m used to this. And to create a sense of normalcy in such a crazy year is something I’m so grateful for.

Looking back, heading into the first match, emotions were so high. We were all ready to just shoot out of a cannon and race, since it had been so long. Since then, the whole experience has felt like a training camp, except we had some swim meets sprinkled in, which made things even better.

I won’t sugarcoat it, though – the middle weeks were a grind. We’d have a two-day match, and then two days later we’d have another match, back-to-back. In those moments I’d constantly remind myself of the light at the end of the tunnel, particularly for our team, the Cali Condors.

Being one of the better teams, we knew that we had a solid chance of making it to the semifinals, and then the final. Reminding myself of what was still to come helped me focus and get through the grind.  I came to savor the days after meets, because those were our rest days. I would wake up, head downstairs for the remaining 30 minutes of the breakfast slot and get some food and coffee. Then – it sounds fancy, I know – I’d get a massage and stretch out. There’s a pool right here at the hotel that’s about 18 meters – so a little shorter than our regular pool, but good for an easy swim to loosen up, especially after a match. The remainder of the rest day was just that: relaxation. I’d watch some Netflix (shoutout How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, love that movie), kick my feet up, and just get ready for the next day.

Not only did I love the rest, but my body needed it. Rest and recovery have been a huge focus, and we’re recovering not just from practice and meets and weights, but also from team meetings, media, and being around other people and having that high energy. You really have to take the time for yourself so you can reset and be ready for the next day.

When I was in high school, I never wanted to miss a practice or take a break. I’d be so sick and I’d still tell my parents I was okay to go to practice. But they’d always say, “Rest is best. Rest is best.” I hated it at the time, but I know they were right. And especially as I get older – don’t get me wrong, I still feel young! – I realize how important it is to recover my mind and body.

Now, with the final right here, it’s the real show. Time to finally reap the rewards of all the work we’ve put into the last six weeks.

I don’t need much external motivation to get me amped, but if I do want to get inspired, I’ll watch the Beyoncé Homecoming documentary. I get so into it. During quarantine this spring, Natalie Hinds and I watched it at least three times. It pumped us up and got our emotions going – and just listening to a woman is so sick like that. That’s why I love listening to female rappers like Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, and Doja Cat — I can relate to their music more.

I’m one of the team captains for Cali Condors, along with Caeleb Dressel. The other day we did interviews where a producer asked Caeleb a bunch of questions, and then 30 minutes later he asked me the same questions. One of the questions was what we admire about each other.

With Caeleb, he has this distinct on and off switch. He knows when to turn it on, and he knows when to turn it off.  When he’s on the pool deck – more so at practice than even at meets – he turns it on. He’s chatting with everybody, he’s ready to go, he’s totally focused. The way he carries himself and how he trains and what he expects from others is inspiring because he wants everyone to be on the same page. So everyone implicitly knows they have to either get on that page, or kick rocks. And then as soon as he’s off the deck back at the hotel he turns the switch off.

After I told the producer all this about Caeleb, he told me that Caeleb had said the same thing about me.

As captains, we’re trying to make everyone feel comfortable and included. We don’t say anything explicitly to our team. We show better than we tell, especially Caeleb.

I love that this team is so close. We want to see each and every person succeed, and that’s why we’re scoring all these points, that’s why we’re undefeated going into the final. I just love that everyone is able to spend time with each other and is jiving together. I hope everyone feels like we can go out there and win this whole thing. And we can – we’re all professional athletes here, and we just have to do our jobs – for our team more than for ourselves.

A friend sent me a message on Instagram, and he said that watching Cali Condors in the ready room before races, where we’re talkative and chatty and having a good time, he said it was a noticeable distinction from other teams. And though it’s a fine line – we take ourselves seriously – at that point, the work has already been done and you do whatever you need to do to get in the right mindset. For us that means we’re relaxed, and we’re just ready to rip.

I’m already feeling excitement in my chest thinking about the final this weekend. I’m visualizing the next couple days and I’m just excited for us to come together us a team and shoot out of that cannon and just go. There are a lot of special people on this team – we have some superstars, but it’s all about the team. And every person matters, every point matters, every placement matters. It’s going to be really fun. And hopefully a great end to a year that has taken quite a few twists and turns. I hope that we bring a sense of entertainment to the swimming community, because at the end of the day, this is made to be fun.

When this season of the ISL is over in a few days, I’m looking forward to going home to Illinois and spending time with my family. And then it’ll be back to work. I’ll carry this momentum of racing into the next calendar year, into Olympic Trials next June and into Tokyo in July. I talked about this before but practicing the mental and emotional aspects of racing, fine-tuning things, and continually learning at a very accelerated rate has been so beneficial. And it created this fire within me that will keep me motivated and moving forward and pushing toward the next race.

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