Familiar unfamiliarity: Lily Olson strives for success in athletics, academics


Cameron Krasucki

Sophomore Illini Swimming, Lily Olsen, successfully devotes her time in both academics and athletics throughout high school and within the university.

By Jonathan Alday, Staff Writer

The majority of Illinois’ student population consists of in-state residents. Last year, Illinois enrolled a total of 1,935 out-of-state students. Of those 1,935, 323 of them are from California. Despite the adjustments that come with attending college nearly 2,000 miles from home, sophomore swimmer Lily Olson’s Midwest background made the transition easier.

Born in Peoria, Illinois, she spent much of her early childhood in Illinois and northern Wisconsin until her family moved to California when she was eight.

“Coming back here was definitely a bit of an adjustment, but it’s not extremely new to me since I’ve lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, so I’m familiar with the Midwest,” Olson said.

For as long as she can remember, athletics have always been a part of her life. Growing up, she also tried soccer, dance, gymnastics, basketball and track before ultimately settling on swimming.

“My parents have always been big supporters of athletics, themselves being former college athletes,” Olson said. “It’s just so good for your mind and your body and everything as a whole.”

Olson began swimming in a club team in Wisconsin alongside her older brother, Mick, at the age of five.

“I got into swimming because my older brother was a swimmer,” Olson said. “ He would go to swim practice, and I would have to go with so might as well start swimming. Swimming just happened to be the one I liked the most and was best at, and it was fun to be in the same training groups with him and his friends growing up.”

Having only one sibling, Lily developed a tight bond with Mick, who attended and swam at Division III Saint John’s University from 2017-2021. Lily always looked up to Mick, citing his confidence and how comfortable he looks when doing anything.

His traits have immensely impacted the type of athlete and competitor she has become. Famously known on the team for being extremely relaxed and confident, Lily uses her older brother’s guidance when preparing for races.

“When I’m at the meet, I’m just really relaxed, which my coaches have noticed and mentioned to me recently,” Olson said. “They’ve said, ‘Wow, you really just kinda relax and go, don’t you?’”

While scouting out a team is common in any team sport where your performance is directly related to your opponent, it isn’t necessarily common practice in competitive swimming. The main focus is on your own individual performance and technique.

Olson does not fit this traditional mold. Instead, she uses scouting as mental preparation before a match, further helping her stay calm.

“I’m really good at researching the other teams,” Olson said. “I like to know, in my events, who’s their best girl, who was their best girl last year, what they did in their last meet; I really like to know the stats. It helps me a lot because it gets me in the mindset of, ‘Oh, she went 2:04? I need to go 2:04.’”

Olson has shown she can meet lofty expectations. She was a four-year varsity athlete in high school, contributing to the success of Mater Dei High School, a private, Catholic school in Santa Ana, California.

While at Mater Dei, she helped the program place third in the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Division I Championship in 2019. That same year, she was a finalist for the division, where she placed eighth in the 50-yard freestyle, won the consolation final in the 100-yard freestyle and anchored her team in the 200- and 400-yard relay, winning fifth and fourth, respectively.

Since her college debut against Purdue on Jan. 16, she has become an immediate asset to the success of the team, contributing to relays, freestyle and butterfly events.

At the 2020 Big Ten Championships, Olson placed 29th in the 200-yard butterfly, barely missing the cutoff to compete as a finalist in the event.

Her efforts were seen by the coaches and teammates, and she was recognized as the most improved swimmer at the end of her freshman season. Most recently, she was recognized by Prairie Farms as the Scholar Athlete of the Week for her success in the Illini’s season opener against Indiana State.

Although an intense competitor, she’s an equally dedicated student, one of the reasons she chose Illinois.

“A lot of Big Ten teams that you talk to, you’ll find the ‘athletics first’ kind of attitude,” Olson said. “There’s a lot of schools that you can feel when they’re recruiting you that they’re recruiting you as an athlete and not really a person. But here, they are really personal with getting to know us as people, not just as students and athletes.”

Despite other Big Ten schools putting a greater emphasis on athletics, Olson says Illinois has a greater balance of education and athletics.

Illinois offers conflict practices for swim & dive members every day for athletes to maintain good academic standing, while allowing them to remain committed to their sport.

“The school is really incredible in that way that they support you academically and athletically, and they care about you as people,” Olson said. 

Though the support helps her academically, she felt very hindered socially, especially after the pandemic restricted social interactions. The large student body was something that excited her when committing to Illinois, but she also recognized that being a student-athlete would come with sacrifices.

“I knew coming in that being an athlete was going to be restricting (socially) for sure.” Olson said. “But it’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make to do something that I love.”



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