MINNEAPOLIS -- Prior to the 50-meter freestyle final Thursday night at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, Georgia freshman Olivia Smoliga went into the ready room and put her head down.
“I kind of just looked down and tried to clear my mind of everything,” she said.The 50 free is hard enough -- blink on the starting block and your race is shot. Throw in a fast, veteran field highlighted by the defending NCAA 50- and 100-meter champion, senior Margo Geer of Arizona, and Smoliga’s pre-race nerves were understandable.
Now imagine what the others must have been thinking.
The lanky swimmer from Glenview, Ill. might not have had their college experience, but she is certainly fast. Smoliga came into the NCAA championships with the best time in the event this season. And as she showed in winning two individual events last month at the SEC championships, she thrives off the championship atmosphere.
On Thursday night at the University Aquatic Center on Minnesota's campus, she showed that big-game performance again.
Despite having the second slowest start time, Smoliga touched the first wall in the 25-meter pool one-hundredth of a second behind the leader and then separated herself from the field in the homestretch, winning her first NCAA championship in 21.59 seconds. Southern California senior Kasey Carlson finished second in 21.72, edging third-place Geer by one hundredth of a second.
“I walked up to my parents and they said, ‘How does it feel to be a national champion in that event?’” Smoliga said. “And that was really exciting. It kind of hit me then.”
Expectations have always been high for Smoliga, and that’s exactly why Georgia senior associate head coach Harvey Humphries was confident that she would perform this weekend.
“She came in with a lot of international experience,” he said, “and so we knew that she would be OK to swim well on this kind of a stage.”
Smoliga has long been a rising star in swimming circles. She won eight state championships for Glenbrook South High School in suburban Chicago, had a fourth-place finish in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and won a short-course world championship all before arriving in Athens, Ga.
Even she admitted to feeling the jitters before Thursday morning’s preliminary heats, though.
“I really was so nervous this morning, and Brian [Smith, Georgia’s associate head coach], who I train with mostly, is the most mellow guy,” she said. “Before he was like [slowing her voice], ‘Just relax,’ grabbed my hand, a smooth operator.”
Whatever he said apparently worked. Smoliga qualified for the 50 free finals with the second fastest time.
“I definitely got my jitters out this morning, and it should be really exciting the next two days,” she said.
For the defending champion Bulldogs, the excitement was already ramped up on the first night. Smoliga led off the 200-yard freestyle relay, the first of six events Thursday, with the fastest opening split. However, Georgia eventually finished third, behind Stanford and California. With national titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012 and a runner-up finish in 2013, Cal is considered Georgia’s biggest challenger for the 2014 crown.
In the second event, however, Georgia sophomore Brittany MacLean used a blazing final lap to overtake four-time Olympic gold medalist and Cal freshman Missy Franklin in the 500 free.
“We got so fired up after Brittany’s 500,” Smoliga said. “It was such a good race, and I feel like it drove us to want to swim as fast as we could, and I just got pumped up.”
Smoliga’s win in the 50 free then led into a pleasant surprise for the Lady Bulldogs when senior Laura Ryan won the 1-meter springboard diving event. It was the first NCAA diving title in school history.
“I am honestly still in shock,” said Ryan, who grew up in nearby Elk River, Minn. “Coming into that event, I had no expectations, so to come out on top like that in my old home pool, I can’t even describe how that feels.”
And Georgia wasn’t done yet. In the night’s final event, Smoliga swam first leg in Georgia’s third-place 400-yard medley relay. The Lady Bulldogs wrapped up the first day of competition with a healthy lead in the team competition. They scored 189 points to Stanford’s 136 and Cal’s 126.
“To be ahead after my first day is really exciting,” Smoliga said, “and I think it’s going to drive all of us to want to swim as fast as we can the next couple days.”