Olivia Smoliga helps U.S. reach final of 400-meter freestyle relay — and goes for Olympic gold in an unexpected way after past disappointment

·4 min read

TOKYO — This is not what Olivia Smoliga expected to be doing here.

Swimming the first leg in the preliminary heat of the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay Saturday night, the Glenview, Ill., native helped the United States secure a spot in the final. The gold medal race will take place Sunday morning, which means it will be shown Saturday evening in the Midwest starting at 8:30 p.m.

The U.S. team posted the fifth-best time of the day, exerting just enough effort to secure a spot in the final but still have something leftover when they go head-to-head with the powerhouse Australian team. The Americans are expected to medal in the event.

“The pressure will be on,” Smoliga said after the race. “When a medal is on the line, it’ll be a little more intense and we will be sharp.”

It’s the position Smoliga has dreamed of for the past five years. It’s just not the event.

After finishing sixth in the 100-meter backstroke at the Rio Games and winning bronze at the last world championships in 2019, Smoliga was expected to compete in the event in Tokyo as well. However, she came in third at the U.S. trials in June, narrowly missing an Olympic berth in a photo finish.

She pushed aside the heartache to prepare for the 100-meter freestyle, in which a top-four finish would mean punching her ticket to Tokyo as a member of the relay team. She was among the contenders for a spot but not considered a lock.

Smoliga finished third behind Abbey Weitzeil and Erika Brown. Her training partner and close friend Natalie Hinds placed fourth and took the final spot on the team.

“I can’t even describe the things that were going through my head after missing 100 back,” the 26-year-old Smoliga told the Chicago Tribune before the Games. “I really had to dig myself out of it and I’m proud of myself that I did.”

Smoliga, however, still was haunted by the disappointing backstroke race when she traveled to Hawaii earlier this month for the U.S. Olympic swim team’s training camp. Knowing she needed to make peace with the result before Tokyo, she wrote down every time she believed she had failed in her swimming career.

The list, she said, went as far back as a time she was disqualified from a summer league race when she was a kid.

“It made me realize that I was able to come back from these moments stronger and maybe wiser,” she said. “It put things into perspective for me.”

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Smoliga was offered the opportunity to swim for Poland in 2012, while she was in high school. It would have meant an easier path to the Olympics, but she turned it down because she enjoyed the heightened pressure and profile that came with representing the United States.

After setting national high school records as a senior at Glenbrook South, Smoliga had a stellar career at the University of Georgia. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 2016, finishing out of the medals in the individual backstroke and winning gold as part of the 400 medley relay.

Smoliga, however, did not stand on the podium with her teammates in Rio because she swam in a preliminary heat and only those who compete in the final race participate in the medal ceremony. Though it has long been Olympic protocol and nothing unique to her, the exclusion has since helped motivate Smoliga.

“I still crave the real thing,” she said.

Though she may occasionally think about what she missed in 2016, Smoliga doesn’t dwell on what could have been if the Games hadn’t been postponed a year. When the coronavirus shut down her training facility in Georgia, she came home to Chicago and worked out in her parents’ basement for two months.

A friend knew someone who has a two-lane, 25-yard heated pool, so Smoliga was able to train throughout that spring in a way many weren’t. She found solace in that pool — just being able to touch water at that time seemed a privilege — but still struggled with the uncertainty surrounding her.

“At times, I didn’t know what I was really training for,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen with my future. That was really hard to deal with.”

She used meditation to help cope with the situation, relying on the breathing techniques that helped her stay in the moment. In the end, she said, she learned a lot about herself.

“I learned that I can take things in stride,” she said. “I can only control what I can control.”

She applied that same lesson after the disappointing backstroke race at the Olympic trials. The results were equally successful.

“If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been able to bounce back the way I did,” she said. “I’m grateful for it.”

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