The two national high school records Olivia Smoliga set at the girls state swimming meet in November were only three weeks old, but Smoliga wasn’t an Illinois high school swimmer anymore.
She was at the Short Course World Swimming Championships in Istanbul. The competition was among the best in the world, and the Glenbrook South senior found herself in an unfamiliar place — an outside lane — for the finals after finishing seventh out of eight in the semifinal heat of the 100-meter backstroke.
First she had to find a way to get comfortable, no easy task in a room full of older, international strangers.
“Everyone was so intense and so quiet, it was different from what I was used to,” Smoliga said. “I sat down with this girl in the ready room and struck up a conversation with her. Just small talk. It definitely calmed me down.”
A little while later, Smoliga surprised herself by becoming the world champion in the event with a time of 56.64 seconds.
She also finished second in the 50-meter backstroke, hardly a disappointment considering she broke 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin’s American record in the process.
Throw in the national high school records in the 50-yard freestyle (21.99) and 100 backstroke (51.43) and the two additional state records she helped Glenbrook South set in the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays, and the Georgia-bound Smoliga is the Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 Preps Plus Athlete of the Year.