Perfectionism pays off for St. Francis swimmer

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Courtesy of Nicole Oliva
Nicole Oliva commemorates her graduation from St. Francis High last month.

Nicole Oliva’s success as a swimmer – she ranks among the best to ever represent St. Francis High – is not just about talent. It also has to do with her mindset.

“I’ve grown up being a perfectionist,” said Oliva, who graduated with honors last month and is headed to UC Berkeley. “My life is more balanced now, but developing those habits early on have paid off.”

The coronavirus pandemic has altered her habits even more, of course. She hasn’t even dipped a toe in the pool since mid-March. That’s a long time for a high-caliber swimmer like Oliva, who has not only excelled at the high school and club levels, but is also a member of the Philippines national team.

“I started swimming competitively at 7, and this is the first time I’ve taken more than two weeks off since then,” she said. “It will take a couple weeks to get a feel for the water again.”

Despite being stuck on dry land, Oliva has continued to train for her sport.

“I’m not in bad shape at all,” she said. “My (club) coach gives us workouts three times a week.”

Those workouts include aerobics for conditioning and exercises to strengthen her core and improve power.

“I also do extra ab work,” she added.

Hard work rewarded

Oliva isn’t one to take shortcuts. And her devotion to swimming – which includes more than a decade of nearly year-round, early-morning practices – has paid off. She leaves St. Francis as one of the most decorated swimmers in school history.
A three-time individual Central Coast Section champion, Oliva advanced to the state finals her freshman, sophomore and junior years (this season’s meet was canceled because of the pandemic).

“On paper, CCS was the highlight (of my high school career), and that pool was my home pool for a while,” she said of the Santa Clara International Swim Center. “But as far as personal connections and having fun, it’s states. The travel experience is so much fun and it feels like summer.”

The St. Francis relay teams she swam on at state, held annually at the Clovis Olympic Swim Complex, placed in the top three each year. Her 400-yard freestyle relay team set the school record at last year’s state meet with a second-place time of 3 minutes, 22.31 seconds. Oliva’s 200 free relay team also set a new school standard at the meet, finishing in a third-place time of 1:33.93.

Individually, she placed third in the 500 free (4:46.03) and seventh in the 200 free (1:48.20), breaking her own school record in the latter.

Oliva almost surely would have returned to state this year – with a chance to make even more school history – but the season ended days before St. Francis’ first scheduled meet.

“It would have been nice to swim this season – I really missed not having Senior Night – but it’s not in my control,” the Santa Clara native said. “I’m satisfied with what I did my first three years.”

A win for swimming & schoolwork

Oliva still won something this year. She was recently named one of the 14 recipients of a CCS Scholar-Athlete Scholarship for the 2019-20 school year.

Recipients were nominated by their schools and put forth to their leagues for selection; one female and one male was chosen from each league in the CCS. The nominees’ applications were then submitted to the CCS Scholarship and Awards Committee, which made its selections in late April.

“I didn’t expect (to win) – not at all,” Oliva said. “I was kind of scrambling to finish (the application), too.”

That application included a glowing recommendation from St. Francis guidance and college counselor Annette Nassir.

“For Nicole, many of her school and club swim teammates are like family; they lean on one another for support and help each other through tough times in and out of the pool,” she wrote. “Humble to the core, Nicole quietly goes about her business attending international swim meets as the No. 2-ranked (ages 16-18) member of the Philippine National Swimming program. During her swim career, Nicole has felt immense pressure – sometimes from her family and other times due to coaches and peer expectations – but she never let this sour her love of swimming.”

Oliva’s work in the classroom also factored into the committee’s decision to award her a $500 scholarship, according to a CCS press release. Along with her 4.15 GPA, Oliva was a member of the Anime Club, Filipino-American Student Union and Audio-Visual Club at St. Francis, along with the California Scholastic Federation. In addition, she has volunteered at HOPE Services and the Crest Nursing Rehabilitation Center.

Olympics could follow Cal season

With her summer club season in limbo, Oliva is preparing for what’s next. The 18-year-old, who committed to Cal more than a year ago, is already looking at which classes to take in the fall.

“I’m so excited,” said Oliva, who plans to major in either psychology, global studies or media studies. “I fell in love with the atmosphere and vibe when I first visited. The academics are great, there’s so much diversity, and the women’s swim program is so prestigious.”

Not long after her freshman season ends next spring, Oliva could be on her way to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics – which have been postponed until July of next year – to represent the Philippines. A dual citizen who has family in the Philippines, Oliva competed for the country at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Argentina. The Philippines’ Olympic qualifiers will be determined by international standards, according to Oliva, meaning that if she swims fast enough this year, she’s in.

“Hopefully, I can make it,” she said. “It’s cutting it close, but, hey, why not?”

While time is running out, it’s probably not wise to bet against the perfectionist.

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