2012-13 Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 | Glenbrook South's Olivia Smoliga

Olivia Smoliga, a swimmer for Glenbrook South High School and the 2012-13 Preps Plus Athlete of the Year, stands for a portrait Friday, June 14, 2013 at her home in Glenview. (Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune / June 14, 2013)

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.