Lights, Camera, Action: Olympian Erica Sullivan Talks About College Swimming, Paris 2024 & A Career In Film
by Peggy Shinn
The last time Erica Sullivan swam on the world stage, she won an Olympic silver medal in the inaugural women’s 1,500-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Her teammate, Katie Ledecky, won the historic race and could have easily overshadowed Sullivan’s first Olympic medal win.
Except Sullivan is not easily overshadowed. The 23-year-old is outspoken, funny and knows where she’s going — both with swimming and with her career after swimming.
“It was a race that happened for the first time for women, and getting to be in Japan was so important to me because I’m half Japanese, so it was great,” Sullivan said by phone from the University of Texas, where she’s a junior. “I only have great memories. It’s definitely a core memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Sullivan is competing in the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 this month and hopes to compete again for Team USA at the Olympic Games Paris 2024. But she has other goals, as well. And one day, standing on an Academy Awards stage could become a great memory, with a gold Oscar statuette to go with her Olympic medal(s).
A former open water swimmer, Sullivan burst onto the Olympic stage three years ago when she qualified for the inaugural women’s 1,500 freestyle, along with Ledecky. At the time, Sullivan talked about the mental health barriers that she had overcome to reach the Olympic stage. Her father, who inspired her swim career, had passed away in 2017 from esophageal cancer, and she talked about “hitting rock bottom” with anxiety, depression, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder, all caused by losing a parent as a teenager. She expressed thanks to her sports psychologist and therapist.
Sullivan readily expresses a full-range of emotions, and her solemnity at the time overshadowed the fact that she is also very funny. Her Twitter bio reads, “I’m good at not drowning … sometimes,” followed by, “Yes, I’m the gay one.”
In Tokyo, after she surged late in the 1,500 and moved into silver medal position, only four seconds behind Ledecky, Sullivan was joyful.
“Just 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 in a press conference after the race.
Sullivan’s mom is Japanese, and her late grandfather was an architect for a few of the Olympic venues for the Tokyo Games. After the race, she met with a few of her relatives — a rare occurrence during a Games still locked down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the Tokyo Games, Sullivan returned home to Las Vegas, celebrated her 21st birthday, then headed to Austin, Texas, for her freshman year at UT. Her major: film, with a minor in creative writing.
With her eye on a film career, Sullivan originally had committed to the University of South California’s cinematic arts program.
Then she saw Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird, a coming-of-age comedy-drama that earned five Academy Award nominations and won two Golden Globes in 2017. Gerwig wrote and directed the film.
“I knew right then that that was the kind of film I wanted to make,” said Sullivan, who wants to one day be a movie director and screenwriter.
She pivoted and in September 2020, committed to attending UT and swimming for the Longhorns.
“(The University of Texas) is a good combination of swimming and film,” she said. “It’s a pretty good film school led by Matthew McConaughey.”
Asked if she has met the Academy-Award-winning actor yet, Sullivan said no, “but I would love to!”
Sullivan has also thrived in college swimming.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “I feel like my experience training for Team USA and in the club environment, it’s every man for themselves. I love the selflessness that comes with college swimming.”
This is her final season of NCAA eligibility (after three gap years), and Sullivan would like to add “NCAA champion” and “NCAA team champion” to her resume. The Longhorn women have finished runner-up twice at the past two NCAA championships, and Sullivan finished second in the 1,650-yard freestyle and third in the 500-yard free at 2022 NCAAs.
Sullivan is also competing at the 2023 Pan American Games this month, her first international meet since Tokyo. One of few veterans with international experience on the Pan Am team, Sullivan can help remind nervous teammates to “soak it all in.”
“Nerves happen at every single meet, but just try to stay positive and have fun,” she can tell them. “Two years removed from Tokyo, I now have the awareness that you're only going to think about the good memories and not the horrible ones, like about your stomach shattering nerves.”
After the 2024 NCAA championships in March, Sullivan will focus on qualifying for her second and final Olympic Games. After the Paris Games, she plans to hang up her swim goggles and move to Los Angeles to “kickstart” her film career (she will graduate from UT in December 2024, with her final semester spent “abroad” in LA).
Sullivan has actually already kickstarted her film career. In 2020, after the Academy Award nominees were announced, she began a Twitter thread that ties people in swimming to Oscar nominees.
An example: For 2023 Best Film winner Everything Everywhere All at Once, Sullivan tweeted, “Simple. Michael Phelps. Knows how to have a good time. Talks about deep issues. And can throw down when needed.”
And for All Quiet on the Western Front, she tweeted, “This is the 13-year-old kid who thinks they are gonna make the Olympic team in two years. He has one sectionals time.”
Sullivan has received good comments and feedback, and she now looks forward to seeing the Oscar nominations and letting her creativity flow.
“The great thing about swimming is that especially at the higher level, it’s a small world,” she said. “So it’s great when Greg Meehan, the Stanford coach and head 2020 Olympic coach, is looking forward to (the thread).”
Asked who she might compare to Barbie — should the 2023 Gerwig film be nominated for an Academy Award — Sullivan won’t think about it until she sees which films are named.
As for making her own movies, Sullivan dreams of one day writing and directing a coming-of-age film.
“If I could write a movie and direct a movie that gets distributed by A24, I could die happy,” she said, referring to the entertainment company that in March 2023, became the first independent studio to sweep Best Picture, Best Director, and all four acting categories in a single year with Everything Everywhere All At Onceat the Academy Awards.
But then Sullivan took a stand and dove deeper.
“We need women-centric films, directed by women, with a majority of women in the crew,” she added. “It’s been great with Barbie setting unprecedented box office numbers. We’re moving in the right direction.
“But I don’t want Barbie to be a big deal because it’s a woman-centric movie that’s doing well at the box office. I want that to be normalized. That would be my dream.”