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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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.