There was a brief time, four years ago, when Olivia Smoliga didn't want to think or talk about the 2016 Olympics. She didn't really want to talk to anyone about swimming at all. She was 17 years old and had just missed the podium in the 100m backstroke at the 2012 Olympic trials. Her fourth-place finish meant she wouldn't be going to London – something she fully believed she would do. One of her coaches, Steve Iida, tried to remind Smoliga that at her age, the loss was no big deal. To go to the Olympics at 17 is rare. He told her to take some time, then come back ready to work with sights set on 2016.
"I was like, OK – I don't want to talk to you ," Smoliga recalled. She didn't want to talk to anyone. "You have to build yourself up to want to make the Olympic team, and I did," Smoliga said. "And when I fell short of it, it was really, really hard."
But now, four years later, Smoliga is happy to talk about the 2016 Rio Olympics. She's happy to talk because this time, she will represent the USA. She earned a spot in the 100m backstroke at the Olympic Trials this week, winning the event with a 59.02 — the fourth-fastest time in the world this year. In the post-race press conference after she won at the trials, Smoliga said she built herself up not only to make the Olympic team, but to take on the pressure of high American expectations. These expectations are justified too. Smoliga won silver in the 100m back in the 2015 Pan Am Games, and was the NCAA champion in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle for the University of Georgia this year.
The USA has won the gold in the women's 100m back at the last three Olympics, and Smoliga acknowledged — and welcomed — the pressure to continue the streak.
"I love it, I'm glad there's pressure on me," said Smoliga, who will be a senior in the fall at UGA. "I feel as though I perform my best when stakes are high, just as they were at NCAAs this past March and just as they were here. … I love the little extra stress. I'm ready for it, I'm excited for it too."
Smoliga: "When you have the Olympics on the line, it's hard to stay calm. This is so cool. It's an awesome feeling." pic.twitter.com/dqhMKfJy0T
— Georgia Swim & Dive (@UGASwimDive) June 29, 2016
And if there was any question whether her name belongs in the company of previous American winners — Missy Franklin, who won gold in London, and Natalie Coughlin, who won the 2008 gold in Beijing and the 2004 gold in Athens — well, there shouldn't be. Smoliga demolished both Franklin and Coughlin in this week's trials in Omaha, Neb.
Franklin finished seventh and Coughlin finished eighth in the 100m back final. Smoliga said the veterans, especially Coughlin, motivated her.
"I've been watching Natalie swim for my entire life, she's been my number one idol," Smoliga said. "I've always wanted to be like her. Having to swim against Olympians has been a huge motivation."
— USA Swimming (@USASwimming) June 29, 2016
Smoliga, a Chicago-area native, said she got more serious about her swimming while at Georgia. Obviously she trained harder. But she also paid more attention to the little things like diet and sleep as part of her "complete focus" on her swimming.
"I went to bed a little bit earlier, (I was) eating, like, kale salad," she laughed. She says that focus made coach Iida right when he tried to console her after her loss four years ago. And remembering the time she failed makes her enjoy her recent success that much more. "Now it just tastes so much sweeter after all the hard work I've put in," Smoliga said.
Smoliga wasn't the only Georgia swimmer to make the Olympic team at this week's trials either. On Wednesday, former Bulldog Allison Schmitt earned a spot on the 200m freestyle relay team, while another UGA alum, Melanie Margalis earned another relay spot. In all, five American swimmers from Georgia have punched tickets to Rio. Joining Smoliga, Schmitt and Margalis will be male swimmers Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland, and possibly Gunnar Bentz. Georgia swimmers Brittany MacLean, Chantal Van Landeghem and Javier Acevedo are expected to compete in Rio for Canada, and Finland's Matias Koski also was a Georgia swimmer.