For the last three Olympics, the U.S. has owned the women’s 100-meter backstroke. Natalie Coughlin took the gold in Athens and Beijing; Missy Franklin stood atop the London podium. At this year’s Olympic Trials, both amazing women took a backseat to a Georgia Bulldog by the name of Olivia Smoliga.
Born in October 1994 to Polish immigrants (they’d only been in the US since 1991), Smoliga's specialties include freestyle and backstroke. (Right now, she's the record-holder for the 50-meter backstroke, short course.)
In 2012, she broke national high school records for backstroke and freestyle. At her first international competition, in Istanbul, the high school senior stunned the audience with a 29.74 split in the 100-meter backstroke. Her 57.74 time in the final earned her one of her two gold medals; she also brought home a bronze and a silver.
The Backstroking Bulldog
During her time at the University of Georgia, Smoliga has brought some exceptional wins to the Bulldogs, more than justifying her athletic scholarship. She’s set three school records in her signature freestyle and backstroke events.
She won the NCAA title in the 50-yard freestyle in her freshman and junior years. With multiple SEC victories, she established herself as one of the team’s top sprinters.
Smoliga barely missed finishing fourth in the 2012 Olympic Trials qualifying meet for the 100-meter backstroke. She came in 23rd in the 50-meter freestyle.
However it wasn't all a loss; Olivia set a personal record before leaving, getting a 59.82 during the semi-finals.
At this year’s Trials, she secured her spot on Team USA by beating out gold medalists Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin in the 100 back.
In an interview afterward, Smoliga told Swim Swam, "I'm in shock still; this is so sweet! I'm so happy right now. You know, I didn't doubt myself, I always said that I could do it. I believed in myself for that!"
Part of Olivia's success may have to do with her realistic understanding of the sport. She knows that it can take a whole season to shave off just a few critical hundredths of a second. "It's a delayed gratification,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
There's no way to tell what the end of the season may hold for you. This is shown in Olivia's own “Sophomore Slump,” where she finished eighth place in the 50-yard free. The culprit? Mononucleosis.
It's impossible to predict what will happen, so in order to achieve Olympian goals, athletes must be not just determined but resilient.
On the Road to Rio
At the U.S. Olympic Training Center, Smoliga’s workouts now include two swim practices daily, one at 5 a.m. and another at 4 p.m. Each practice takes between two and three hours. And that doesn't include the out-of-pool strength training that she does three times a week!
Smoliga qualified for just the one event, but she seems particularly happy that it’s this event. At her post-qualification press conference, she gushed, “The 100 back has always been my baby.” Here’s hoping that ‘baby’ lands her on the podium at Rio.