Picture by 2020 Getty Images

Olivia Smoliga has unlocked the power of positive thinking

The Olympic gold medallist swimmer told Olympic Channel how meditation, and a life lesson from Kobe Bryant, have helped her redefine failure.
By Andrew Binner

Picture the scene. Olivia Smoliga is underwater, listening to her heartbeat.

The image is a stark contrast to the usual portrayal of the USA swimmer, who has been known to wear her emotions - both happy and sad - on her sleeve after a race.

And that’s the point.

In the past year, the Olympic gold medallist has learnt how to better control her competitive spirit, which has in turn allowed her to redefine failure, and unlock the power of positive thinking.

“If I'm taking a bath, as a way to practise mindfulness I'll just listen to my heartbeat,” she told Olympic Channel.

“It's been a treat to be able to really hone in on that power. I feel like everyone has that. Everyone can use it, not only athletes, and it's really special.”

Olympic Channel sat down with Olivia for an in-depth discussion about her use of meditation, how she is applying life lessons from Kobe Bryant in the run up to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, and more.

Smoliga has an impressive resume.

Four-time long course world champion, ten short course world titles (including eight at Hangzhou in 2018), and an Olympic gold medal as part of Team USA’s Rio 2016 medley relay team. To cap it off, she is also the current 50m backstroke short course American record holder.

However, the backstroke and freestyle star has had a tendency in the past to overlook her achievements, and focus on where she can improve.

“I feel like I can be really hard on myself, as people are when they fail, when they don't reach a goal,” she said.

One such occasion was the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

The 6-foot-2 swimmer made the 100m backstroke final, and was a favourite to medal, having already beaten Olympic gold medallists Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin at the USA Trials.

But Smoliga had been so focused on Trials, she hadn’t thought ahead to the Olympics.

Her nerves got the better of her in Rio, and she could only manage a sixth-place finish in the final, as teammate Kathleen Baker sealed silver.

Despite leaving the Olympics with a gold medal after representing the USA in the 4x100m medley relay preliminary rounds, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

“Everything was a whirlwind, everything happened so fast,” she continued.

“It was pretty overwhelming. I think I was so in the mindset of just making the team, I hadn't thought too much about what came next. I ended up having nerves which are normal, but I wish I had been a little bit more present at the time.”

Discovering the power of meditation

The life of a professional swimmer is regimented and fast-paced.

For that reason, the global coronavirus pandemic provided Smoliga with the first opportunity in a long time to figure out how to actually stay more present.

“Last year, I feel like a lot came into my path to teach me certain things, and see the bigger picture. One of those things was meditation,” the Illinois-born athlete continued.

“Every morning I wake up about five minutes earlier than normal and I'll listen to a meditation which really taps into your subconscious." - Olivia Smoliga to Olympic Channel.

"It calms your thoughts and allows you to control them through positive affirmations. With practise, it just becomes innate."

With a new sense of inner control, Smoliga feels she now has more power in the water.

“I definitely feel like there's this alter ego that comes out when I'm when I'm racing, even when I'm training.

“When it’s turned on, I feel like I'm in a trance and nothing else really exists. I’m able to push myself harder. I feel like I've really only been able to truly implement it in the past several months which is cool.”

Olivia Smoliga is going into the USA Olympic Trials with a new mindset.
Picture by 2012 Getty Images

Redefining failure

One of Smoliga’s new affirmations is to find the positive side of losing.

Through doing this, she can replace the feeling of disappointment with a commitment to improve.

“You have negative thoughts in your head when racing or training. I feel like that's inevitable,” she said.

“They'll come into your mind. But now I’m now able to say, ‘OK, relax. What can I do to get better? What lesson again? What lesson can I draw from this and move forward with it to be better?'

“Being calmer reminds me of how it was when I was starting swimming, and all I wanted to do was see how fast I could be any time, and that was it. I had certainly forgotten that.”

Olivia Smoliga won eight gold medals at the 2018 short course world championships in Hangzhou, China.
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Lessons from Kobe Bryant

The swimmer has taken inspiration from other athletes too.

She recently saw a video of recently-deceased basketball star Kobe Bryant, who’s message resonated perfectly within her.

“He's like, 'The word failure just doesn't exist, because no matter what, I'm on my own path. I'm learning from this lesson. And I'm just going to be better from it'.”

Within swimming, Smoliga enjoys exchanging ideas with 13-time world champion Caeleb Dressel.

“He's just such a special person, not only as an athlete and what he's doing for the sport, but just as a straight-up human being,” she said of her compatriot.

“We talk about mindfulness and the power of the brain, and how you can train it. It’s really cool to talk to someone else about who knows how important mental training is.

A stacked field for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Smoliga will look to apply her new outlook at the USA Olympic Trials in June 2021.

While it will be her third time at the event, sealing her place on the plane to Japan is far from a foregone conclusion.

With world-record holder Regan Smith and Olympic silver medallist Kathleen Baker also competing for a place in the 100m backstroke, it’s fair to say the USA is spoilt for talent.

“It just makes you want to work that much harder , to know that these girls are going to bring their A game as they always do,” Olivia Smoliga to Olympic Channel.

“It definitely makes me excited to race against them, and to race against myself in a sense.

The 26-year-old chose to keep her target times and Olympic ambitions a secret.

But it was clear that this is going to be the most mature, calm and focussed Olivia Smoliga we have seen yet.

“The most general goal I can give you is that I want to be better than I am today, the month leading up to Trials, get to the Games and see what I can do.