9:55 PM EDT, August 5, 2014
IRVINE, Calif. — Olivia Smoliga remembers feeling flabbergasted when one of her sport's biggest stars, Ryan Lochte, greeted her by saying, "Good job, Olivia.'''
"I was like, 'Holy cow, you know my name!''' Smoliga said.
That happened when the swimmer from Glenview began in earnest to make a name for herself, finishing fourth in the 100-meter backstroke at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and six months later winning that event at the world short-course championships in Istanbul.
So when Smoliga arrived at the U.S. championships last summer, soon after graduating from Glenbrook South with a swimming resume that included national high school records, she brought what now seems to her a surfeit of confidence. It quickly was exhausted by her unremarkable performances.
"A reality check," she said Tuesday.
That meet and the year that followed have brought Smoliga similar feelings, success mixed with setbacks, making her goal for the nationals that begin here Wednesday appropriately modest.
While others will be seeking the top-two finishes to earn individual event spots on the U.S. team for the Pan Pacific Games later this month, Smoliga, 19, hopes she can do well enough to retain her spot on the senior national team. To do that, she must have one of the six fastest times in one of her Olympic-program events (50 and 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke) by a U.S. swimmer at nationals or Pan Pacs.
Smoliga had a difficult transition to the work load, academic and athletic, in her freshman year at Georgia. She nearly passed out running the steps at the football stadium one day last summer. She felt similarly overwhelmed by doing serious weight training for the first time in her life and twice the amount of pool work she did in high school.
"I made it," Smoliga posted on Instagram early last fall when she felt capable of handling the new load.
Smoliga survived a first semester with so many trips to the health center she finally was tested for mononucleosis in November, with the result negative. Her freshman season ended with a national title in the 50-yard freestyle at the NCAA meet, where she swam 14 races in three days to help the Bulldogs win the team championship.
The demands of such experiences and of the previous 12 months finally laid her low at a mid-June meet in California. Smoliga withdrew, flew home for some TLC from her mother and had another mono test, which came back positive. Much of her training since then has been limited by doctors' orders.
"For a while, I was thinking, 'Why did this happen to me?'" she said. "I came here being the underdog, and this is only going to make me more of one.
"Things keep hitting me and hitting me. I'm just trying to do the best I can under the circumstances."
A fifth in the 100 backstroke at last year's nationals was the first blow. It was her favorite event, and Smoliga had seen herself finishing in the top two to earn a spot at the 2013 outdoor worlds. Her results in three other events — 19th in the 50 freestyle, 21st in the 100 and ninth in the 50 backstroke — were equally disappointing.
"It's hard to think about that meet," she said, "but it's always in the back of my mind."
So are the 2016 Olympics, exactly two years away as Smoliga talked Tuesday while sitting in the club lounge at the Irvine Hotel. She remembers being the only one to raise a hand when a Glenbrook Titan Aquatic Club coach asked the fifth graders in his training group, "Which of you wants to go to the Olympics?''
"That is what has been pushing me as an athlete," she said.
For a swimmer, the Olympics always are the name of the game.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC