Olivia Carter’s swimming career has been studded with peaks and relatively free of valleys.
The sophomore’s record shows no shortage of first-place finishes and record-setting times. She’s represented two top-tier collegiate programs, as well as her country, in competition. But any discussion of winning or losing overlooks her love of swimming.
“I love the feeling of being in the water, and having so much power to move that water,” Carter said. “It’s an unreal feeling.”
That’s why the lowest point in her career is right now. She’s been out of the water for more than two weeks — the second-longest such break since she was five. Without the dependable structure of practice and competition, Carter feels rudderless.
COVID-19 took away her chance at a national championship last March and cut her first semester at Michigan short. For one of the first times in her life, Carter is staring down an obstacle she cannot overcome.
Carter joined her second swim team the same way she joined her most recent one: by having the confidence to go for it.
She began swimming in the summer of 2004 in her hometown of Cary, N.C. At a meet that summer, an opportunity to swim on a year-round team presented itself in the form of a tent handing out gear.
“I grabbed a free cap,” Carter said. “And I ran up to my mom like ‘Look, I’m on the team! They accepted me, I’m on the team!’”
It wasn’t as easy as Carter thought; she still had to try out. But she made the team, securing the spot entirely of her own volition.
The other constant in Carter’s pre-college life — homeschooling— also began around this time.
“When I was in it, and actually doing the work, I think I might have had a different opinion on it,” Carter said. “But looking back on it, it really did shape who I am today.”
For Carter, the benefits of a homeschool education lay particularly in the extracurricular activities that it allowed. She accrued physical education credits by going flying with her father, a professional pilot. Trips to the zoo were frequent. But the fun stuff only happened when Carter made the deadline on her work — a responsibility she held.
“It was really good for me to understand how to manage my time and manage my studies so that I could open up free time to do things that I wanted to do,” she said.
When her family moved from Cary to Greensboro in 2016, Carter began swimming at the Enfinity Aquatic Club. Training under Enfinity coach Korey McCulley, she shed more than five seconds off her 200-yard butterfly time and wound up as the No. 11 recruit for the class of 2018 on collegeswimming.com.
“With that team, and with that new coach, I was really, really able to achieve my dreams,” Carter said. “I had always had the dream, since 2008, 2012, of being on the Olympic team. … Once I started swimming with Enfinity … I started realizing that those dreams could actually come true.”
She committed to Georgia, along with three other swimmers ranked inside the top 25. Carter more than held her own in the deep SEC; she won SEC Freshman of the Year, was named to the All-SEC first team and placed seventh in the 200-yard butterfly at the NCAA championships.
But Carter had committed as a junior in high school — the decision, which was the right choice for her then, didn’t age well. Academics weren’t the issue; while the more structured schedule and classroom environments were new to her, her prior education left her well-equipped for the challenge of college courses. It was something harder to quantify.
“Over the course of my freshman year, I didn’t quite feel like I fit,” she said. “The hardest part for me was admitting the fact that I didn’t feel like I fit. It’s one thing to sense it, but it’s another thing to come out and tell my parents, ‘I don’t feel like I fit here.’ I can’t say anything bad about the team; it was a totally personal decision.”
So Carter grabbed the bull by the horns once again, announcing her intent to transfer. Her original plan was to take an Olympic redshirt for the following season and train for Olympic Trials at Enfinity, but by early October 2019, she committed to Michigan.
Before she stepped foot in Ann Arbor as a student for the first time, Carter had already made a strong first impression.
She joined the Wolverines on their winter break training trip to Key Largo, Fla. In her Michigan debut at the Orange Bowl Classic, Carter set the meet record for the 100-meter butterfly. A performance like that appeared par for the course considering the high expectations of the Wolverines’ coaching staff.
“She swims a lot of different events, so she will be scoring a lot of points in different places,” Michigan coach Mike Bottom said after the meet.
Carter made good on these expectations by helping Michigan to a win in each of the season’s remaining dual meets. The Wolverines went on to take second place at the Big Ten championships, where Carter’s win in the 200-yard butterfly, fastest in conference history, fell short of the mark she wanted: a personal best.
“We had so much more to give,” she said. “So much more to give. It was really a big disappointment that we couldn’t win Big Tens, so I know that just added to the fire that we were going to put on at NCAAs. I am 100 percent confident that we could have gone in there and absolutely dominated.”
Another personal goal — competing at the Olympic trials — was put on hold when the summer Olympics were moved to 2021. She is aware of the kind of work required to make that dream come true: increased attention to detail in the water, as well as weightlifting to strengthen her upper body. But right now, the quarantine is preventing Carter from getting back to work.
“(This) doesn’t feel temporary,” she said. “It feels like the end of the world.”
After a dual-meet win over Ohio State in January, in which Carter won the 200-yard butterfly, Michigan associate head coach Rick Bishop paid her the ultimate compliment.
“Obviously we’re better because of her performances in the pool,” Bishop said. “… but we’re just better because she’s a great contributing athlete and a great Michigan woman.”
Carter recognized the profundity of the ‘Michigan woman’ title. She’s been a Wolverine long enough to know that, but not long enough to feel comfortable attaching it to herself.
“I’m incredibly honored to have that title already,” Carter said. “I feel like I haven’t been there long enough to deserve that.”
It’s impossible to say when Carter will feel that she deserves it. But when she can get back to training, there is no doubt that she’ll begin attacking her long list of goals — setting a new personal best in the 200-yard butterfly, scoring points for Michigan at national championships and making the Olympic team — with at least equal, if not increased, drive.
She just needs a chance to move the water again.