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.
"Istanbul was amazing," Smoliga said. "It was unexpected. That was the highlight, but being on the high school team, setting those records, especially as part of a team, was just so much fun."
Smoliga's social and swimming lives are naturally intertwined because of the enormous time commitment required to reach world-class status.
Balancing the two wasn't always easy.
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Smoliga did not join a swim club until fifth grade and needed some time to catch up.
"I remember a coach looking at Olivia coming out of the water, red like a red lobster and gasping for air, and saying, 'Does she have a problem?' " said Tom Smoliga, who was a competitive swimmer in Poland. "That's how hard she had to work."
It didn't take long for the hard work to show up on the clock, but a problem crept up a couple of years later.
Before high school, Smoliga was sometimes faster in practice than in meets.
"In eighth grade Tom had to tell her, 'I'm not going to those meets with you so you can socialize,' " Ela Smoliga, Olivia's mother, said. "That was in eighth grade."
"We were both going to every single meet and all these practices," Tom Smoliga said. "I remember a meet at Barrington. She was training hard and there were no results.
"We finally asked Olivia, 'What is going on?' And it was not as nice of a conversation as we're having now. She was upset with us, but from that point on something clicked."
These days, Tom Smoliga's attempts at turning friends into rivals are not as successful.
If Smoliga is going to become an NCAA champion at Georgia and an Olympic gold medalist in 2016, she may have to beat Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals and set a world record in the 2012 London Games.
Olivia speaks glowingly of Franklin, who figures to be her main competition in the backstroke for years to come.
"We are trying to get her to completely start not liking her," Tom said with a smile that suggested he's at least half-joking. "She goes, 'Mom, dad, I have nothing on her. She is the nicest person in the world.' Then Elizabeth (Ela) met her mom and said, 'I have nothing on her either.' "
"It is not that (Olivia) says that about everyone," Ela said. "There are girls who are not as nice or will criticize or give you a look. But that's not the case there (with Franklin)."
"I'm doing my best trying for something," Tom said, "but it's not happening."
2013: Olivia Smoliga, Glenbrook South
2012: Jabari Parker, Simeon
2011: Lukas Verzbicas, Sandburg
2010: Olivia Scott, Rosary
2009: Dan Block, Lake Park
2008: Garrett Goebel, Montini
2007: Nick Nasti, Plano
2006: John Dergo, Morris
2005: Alexandria Anderson, Morgan Park
2004: Candace Parker, Naperville Central
2003: Steve Walker, Lockport
2002: Mary DeScenza, Rosary
2001: Matt Roth, Willowbrook
2000: Matt Lottich, New Trier
1999: Jon Schweighardt, Wheaton Warrenville South
1998: MaryAnne Kelley, Fremd
1997: Shakedia Jones, Waukegan
1996: T.J. Williams, Mount Carmel
1995: Tai Streets, Thornton
1994: Terri Zemaitis, Downers Grove South
1993: Joe Williams, Mount Carmel
1992: Jennie Driscoll, St. Francis
1991: Cliff Floyd, Thornwood
1990: T.J. Dortch, Mundelein
1989: Joey Gilbert, Andrew
1988: Dana Miroballi, Wheeling
1987: Kent Graham, Wheaton North
1986: Mike Morrison, Deerfield
1985: Katie Meier, Wheaton Central
1984: Nancy Reno, Glenbard West
1983: Eric Kumerow, Oak Park
Best of the rest
Connor Black, Mundelein, Sr.: The Stanford-bound swimmer set two state records (19.8 in 50 free, 47.61 butterfly) and one a national record (butterfly) at the boys state meet in February.
Lauren Carlini, West Aurora, Sr.: Voted the No. 1 volleyball recruit in the country by college coaches before the season, the Wisconsin-bound Carlini was the Gatorade National Player of the Year while leading team to a school-record 32 wins.
Kyle Langenderfer, Lincoln-Way East, Sr.: The two-time state champion wrestler earned first-team All-State honors in football after helping team to runner-up finish in 7A. Undefeated in wrestling his senior season, he will continue his career at Illinois.
Jabari Parker, Simeon, Sr.: Duke-bound basketball player started on four state championship teams, won an unprecedented two Illinois Mr. Basketball awards and two gold medals with Team USA. Also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Laquon Treadwell, Crete-Monee, Sr.: Perhaps underrated as a basketball player, the Mississippi-bound Treadwell is known for football. The two-time Tribune All-State selection and No. 1-ranked receiver in the country was the player of the year after leading team to 14-0 record, first state championship.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun