Back in her Ewing High School days, Olivia Czelusniak didn’t have serious plans to go to her mother’s alma mater, Skidmore College, but she decided to apply anyway. She eventually toured the school and met swimming coach Jill Greenleaf and her staff.
“After talking to them about swimming and everything,” said Czelusniak, “I knew it was the right place for me.”
As the 2017 EHS graduate finishes her junior year back home in virtual learning classes due to the coronavirus concerns, she’s even more convinced it was the right fit. Czelusniak has found success in the classroom and the pool at Skidmore, where she has been a valuable contributor to the Thoroughbreds women’s swimming team while finding a new appreciation and approach to the sport.
“Olivia is one of our most consistent student-athletes,” said Greenleaf, who’s been coaching 18 years at Skidmore. “She came from a strong high school and club swimming background. We were very excited that she decided to follow her mom.”
Greenleaf said that Czelusniak had success immediately as a freshman in terms of strong dual meet performances, and that her growth over the last three years has been as much mental as it has been physical.
“She’s grown as a competitor,” she said. “She’s much more consistent in practice in terms of her focus. She’s more confident in her skill as an athlete. As her mental side of competitiveness has become stronger, we’ve really seen the results in the pool.”
Czelusniak recorded the second fastest 50 freestyle time, 25.19 seconds, and the second fastest 100 free time, 55.26 seconds, and the second fastest 200 free time, 2:01.85, for the Skidmore women this year. She capped her season at the Liberty League Championships when she anchored the 200 medley relay of Lexi Benfante, Rachel Olson and Brooke Edwards, to a school-record 1:52.93.
“I was really excited to achieve that record,” Czelusniak said. “It meant a lot because the girls I train with work so hard, so to have that was kind of like the icing on the cake at the end of the year, which is fantastic. I kind of had a feeling that we were maybe going to break it because we were close to it at our mid-season meet. Nothing is a guarantee, so it was a nice way to start off our championship meet.”
The record was a reward for hard work and consistency, but Czelusniak tries not to get so wrapped up in the numbers anymore. Changing that outlook is where she has grown the most in the last few years.
“When I came in freshman year, I think I was a lot more focused on specific times I wanted to achieve by senior year,” Czelusniak said. “There’s definitely room for me to achieve them. I think I made the most progress in stuff I wasn’t thinking about when I came into college, and that’s the mental aspect and learning to appreciate swimming not just for the time, but for the people you’re with and the experiences you have.”
She added: “I made the mistake when I was younger of focusing on times and trying to base my worth as an athlete off of that, instead of looking at how hard I was working in practice, and how lucky I was to have the teammates I did. In terms of time, I’m kind of where I want to be. You always want to see improvements, but I think I’m most happy with where I’ve come from the mental aspect and the team aspect.”
On the small Ewing High team, Czelusniak always stood out for her ability, and she acted as a mentor to her less experienced teammates. But looking at her competition and her Eastern Express club teammates’ times opened her up to intense personal pressure and occasional disappointment.
“My frustrations and struggle with everything started my junior year of high school,” Czelusniak said. “You have pressure from school and thinking about college. I was focusing a lot on the people around me and what they were achieving. I was pressuring myself to do the things they were doing. It’s really been a gradual process over the past four years of changing my outlook on the sport and making sure that I’m focusing on myself and not other people.”
Czelusniak’s coach and teammates at Skidmore can recognize her development and changes in how she approaches the sport. Her improvements have left her more satisfied, even when it’s not reflected in numbers.
“She’s so consistent,” Greenleaf said. “You know what you’re going to get every single time that you go to practice or you go to compete. Some swimmers, it’s really variable. They may have a really great day and maybe a not so great day. With her, you know based on what you’ve been seeing in training, kind of exactly where you’re going to be. You can almost guess she’ll be able to go a 55 or 56 that day, and she pretty much always lives up to where you expect her to be. In a sprint event, when tenths of a second are a major difference, consistency is really valuable.”
Skidmore has used her primarily for freestyle sprints, though she has swum the 100 butterfly at times as well. Czelusniak has appreciated the chance to focus on the sprints in college.
“I was really lucky on my club team to have coaches that didn’t want us to specialize so we didn’t get burned out from doing the same thing over and over,” Czelusniak said. “It was finally nice when I got to college to specialize and do sprint specific work. I really like that. That was probably the only major change, and getting used to new coaching styles.”
Her college team has valued her steady contributions in individual and relay events. Czelusniak has been able to give a lot not just in the pool, but in training just as she did in high school.
“Olivia is a team leader,” Greenleaf said. “Already as a junior, she’s vocal, she’s someone that helps to organize our offseason optional training both in the weight room and in the pool. She was even involved with it as a sophomore. I’m sure that she’ll be one of the folks on social media and texting and all that as we’re going through that surreal world of completely training away from each other.
“She’ll be the type that’s already organizing and chatting with her teammates and inspiring them to do the offseason work that she’s been really consistent at doing. I certainly expect her to be in some type of leadership role next year within the program. She has that lead by example mentality and attitude going at all times.”
Her attitude makes her a natural leader. She has been able to share her enthusiasm for her life-long sport with her teammates.
“In college, everyone has a responsibility to lead at some point in their career,” Czelusniak said. “I did offer to organize lifts for the coming up season because I really enjoy that. I’ve always enjoyed swimming too so for me it’s not really work to say, ‘Let’s go swim,’ because I want to do it anyway. When you find people who are like minded, and you can make it easier for others who are hesitant or whatever because they see when you’re passionate about something, it makes it easy for other people to want to join in and want to participate with you.”
Czelusniak, who has been on the Liberty Conference All-Academic team the last two years, is just as enthusiastic about her professional future. A health and human physiological sciences major, she plans to go to grad school for physical therapy.
“I’ve always been interested in human movement and the study of those sorts of things,” said Czelusniak, who was the EHS Class of 2017 valedictorian. “It came from always being interested in technique swimming wise. Growing up and being a sprinter, the little aspects of technique in your stroke make a big difference. That’s where it started with me. And I’ve always just loved doing technique in swimming in general.”
She adds: “I’ve also really had a desire to teach people and help people. With coaching, I’ve always loved helping kids learn how to swim. With a career like physical therapy where I’ll be able to see people make measurable and visual progress and be able to help people get back to living the way they want to be living I think will be really beneficial and rewarding for me.”
Czelusniak plans to stick with her interests this summer as a coach and lifeguard at Penn Brook Swim Club in Pennington, and she will shadow a physical therapist for her internship at Activcore in Princeton. Following this summer, Czelusniak is looking for a rewarding finish to her swim career before she heads to graduate school.
“I was really happy with what I did this season,” she said. “My sophomore year was about consistency. This year was me reaping the benefits from that. One of the aspects that I’ve struggled with a lot in swimming is the mental side of it. I think I was in a lot better place mentally this year. I was happy with where I was and what I did.”