TOKYO — Occasionally at an Olympics, some athlete on the more obscure side of his or her sport will earn a medal, necessitating a visit to the news conference room, whereupon that athlete proceeds to charm the gathered media to the point that they have no choice but to write about them. Congratulations, Erica Sullivan.
In a roughly eight-minute Q&A session that was heavy on the A, Sullivan — who had just won the silver medal for Team USA in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle Wednesday, finishing four seconds behind teammate Katie Ledecky — managed to do the following:
- Win over the Japanese media and Olympic staff members with her fluent Japanese, which was her first language as a child and the language she still uses in conversation with her mother, a Japanese citizen.
- Proclaim herself the “epitome of the American person,” explaining: “I’m multicultural. I’m queer. I’m a lot of minorities. That’s what America is. To me, America is not about being a majority. It’s about having your own start. The American Dream is coming to a country to establish what you want to do with your life.”
- Describe in too-vivid detail what it was like to train, for a time when pools shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, in the “absolutely disgusting” waters of Lake Mead outside Las Vegas. “There’s duck poop everywhere, and it’s murky. It’s a solid brown-green on a good day. It’s just gross. … We were getting [bitten by] duck mites. Apparently they like to eat ducks’ poop. We were covered in bites. [But] it built character. I’m funnier because of it.”
- Make what sounded like a public overture to a couple of fellow members of Team USA. “Also,” she interjected into one of her soliloquies, “I would like to use this shot to say that if the [U.S.] women’s soccer team, especially Tobin Heath and Christen Press, would like to reach out, that would mean the world.”
Sullivan, 20, made frequent trips to Japan as a child with her family to visit extended family members in Ofuna, about an hour outside Tokyo. Her maternal grandfather, who died in 2018, was an architect who helped design some of the buildings that are hosting the Olympics this summer.
She wasn’t exactly an unknown, having made Team USA’s roster for the 2018 Pan-Pacific Championships, where her best finish was fifth in the 800 free. But she didn’t emerge as a medal threat for Tokyo until more recently, dropping her best times in the 1,500 from 16:02.88 in 2018 to 15:55.29 in 2019 to 15:51.18 at the Olympic trials in June to 15:46.67 in the preliminary heats in Tokyo. On Wednesday, her silver medal-winning time in the final was 15:41.41.
With her sense of humor and gregarious personality, Sullivan quickly has become a favorite among her teammates since she qualified for Tokyo, and her silver medal Wednesday came in the Olympic debut of both Sullivan herself and the event she swam: This was the first time the 1,500 free was contested for women in an Olympics.
It was a congruity that called out for someone to remark upon, and Sullivan was just that person.
“Just me getting to be on the podium, in Japan, as an Asian American woman and getting to take silver in a historical women’s event for the first time, as someone who likes women and who identifies as gay — it’s so cool,” she said. “It’s awesome.”