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Synchronicity — health and faith in a young LDS almost-Olympian

The following is second in a two-part series about Olivia Ekberg. Read the first part of the story here.

Olivia Ekberg gives me instructions on what to do if she has a seizure during the night—she doesn’t like to be alone, and she usually needs someone to hold her head when she shakes.

Once an 18-year-old Olympic synchronized swimmer, Olivia is now studying to be a writer at our small liberal arts school, Southern Virginia University. We are sharing a room on a study trip to New York City and as we get ready for sleep, we become fast friends.

Olivia was a natural from the first day she slipped into a pool as an 8-year-old in Mesa, Arizona. Pointing her toes and feathering her cupped palms back and forth—or sculling—to hold a position in the water, Olivia worked hard to perfect her art. As she built her body and muscle over the years, her coach Lorette Haynes built her spirit and potential.

“Training under Lorette taught me about life, about who I could be, about strength and taught me about how much I could really do,” Olivia says. “Lorette cares about the human being inside of the athlete more than the athlete.”

After local success, Olivia was on the national stage by age 9 and on the world stage by age 17. But the summer coaches at nationals didn’t take care of Olivia’s spirit the way Lorette did.

At 14-years-old and 110 pounds, her coaches told her she was fat. They wouldn’t let her eat sweets, bread or dressing on her salad. At competitions, they used calipers to measure her thigh “fat,” and her waist “fat.” They allowed her three minutes to cry in the bathroom before she was expected to wash her face and perform her solo routine that was considered to be one of the best in the nation. Olivia loved the water, the dance and the skill, but she was also dying inside from the pressure.

She traveled to Puerto Rico, Turkey, Russia — swimming, winning and soaking up the American national anthem on one podium after another. For a while, though, Olivia would pray day after day that she would tear her ACL so she could give up her death grip on perfection, empty and filled with shame.

Synchronicity is about perfection. It is about a team of seven bodies moving together in perfect unison, and I see that perfection in Olivia’s body at the community pool in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her flesh is sculpted like Persephone’s perfectly toned thigh in Bernini’s masterpiece—but Olivia is both the sculpted and the sculptor—the art and the artist.

I watch as Olivia executes her award-winning solo routine in the water in between her coaching appointments. She holds her favorite position—a pose she’s coined “The Nova.”

Olivia coaches 9-year-old Sarah on the side of the covered pool. “How did it feel when you did your reverse torpedo?” she asks her protégée. "What were you thinking about while you were doing a crane? What’s inside of you?”

Olivia positions Synchro Suzie, a two-dimensional hinged doll, in order to demonstrate to Sarah what a half pike 180-degree turn should look like.

“When you’re piking, you look like this,” Olivia teaches, stretching the doll in multiple directions. “I want you to look like this. Does that make sense?”

As Sarah moves away from the edge to try again, Olivia follows her into the water. Diving under, she keeps her eyes wide open in true synchro swimming style, holding Sarah’s waist and pressing in her elbows to encourage Synchro Suzie’s perfect form.

When they finish the drills, I want to ask Olivia how she felt about shaping Sarah’s body into synchronized formations. I could see how she balanced the fine line of trust, honesty, motivation and expectation while tending to the human being inside the athlete the way Lorette did for her.

Olivia has a unique perspective when it comes to coaching. “A lot of girls have anxiety, and my heart hurts for them,” she says. “When you’re swimming, you can’t see what you’re doing. So, you have to trust that your coach knows. But what your coach tells you doesn’t always match what you feel inside. It just takes a lot of trust.”

Her own balance between anxiety and trust brought Olivia to coach synchronized swimming at age 18 rather than swimming on the U.S. Olympic team.

Olivia’s profile and photograph are still listed on the TeamUsa.org website as part of the Olympic roster, but she never swam in the 2016 games. Instead, on Nov. 3, 2015, Olivia found herself in the back of an ambulance, convulsing and confused in the midst of a cacophony of sirens and on her way to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, California.

After sacrificing her childhood and school to achieve her dreams, Olivia began the process of trusting a different kind of coach that day; she did all she could to rely on God through the coming years that were often filled with anxiety and shame.

At 17-years-old, Olivia’s unexpected, stress-induced seizures brought on a feeling of terror and loneliness. Enduring her unexpected medical trauma without support from her home, team or her host family beside her, it seemed as though God had abandoned her as well.

In a single afternoon there were suddenly no more Olympics, no more competitions, no more first place awards or national anthems, no more pools and no more identity. Diagnosed with conversion disorder, a physical manifestation of anxiety and stress in the form of seizures, Olivia started over again as a person.

It was a long, angry wrestle with God.

Those disabling moments in the ambulance and the crumbling sense of self that followed could not have felt like a meaningful circumstance for Olivia. But time and a new sense of the divine have since fashioned an irreplaceable synchronicity with heaven that she wouldn’t trade for any gold medal.

Back in the pool in Charlottesville, Olivia is patiently guiding Sarah through “The Albatross” pose. “Close the space between your bra bone and your belly button,” Olivia instructs. “Think about your ribs as elevators. Tilt your pinkies up. Have I taught you my vein trick?”

Sarah is eager and attentive. She follows Olivia’s directions precisely, willing her body to bend and move in exact obedience.

Olivia has molded a new version of herself since her seizures began. “I know God, I believe God and I want God. That’s enough for me,” she tells me between practices, surprisingly calm. While I observe Olivia with Sarah, I imagine her as a breathing, living version of the Synchro Suzie doll, willingly placing herself into God’s hands.

He is constantly moving her limbs and life into new positions. “I want you to look like this,” he says.

Olivia responds by making his words match how she feels inside. Do with me what you will, she says. Just let me help Sarah find the human being inside of her.

I expect Olivia will help many girls do just that in the coming years. Some of them may even swim in the Olympics. And if they do, they will go knowing Olivia helped them build not only their muscles and bodies, but their spirits and potential.

Jessica Nova Rasmussen is a graduate of Southern Virginia University and a freelance writer. Email: jrasmussen99@gmail.com