Erica Sullivan is an American swimmer who is competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Sullivan is a first-time Olympian and will be swimming alongside Katie Ledecky in the first-ever women’s 1500-meter freestyle final. After making the Olympic team during trials in Omaha, Sullivan talked about the death of her father and how she overcame mental health struggles.
“I’m proud of the mental health barriers that I got through, with my dad dying in 2017 and really hitting a rock bottom in 2018 from the stress of losing a parent at age 16 and having to get over the anxiety, the panic attacks, the depression, the PTSD, all that,” Sullivan told Swimming World Magazine. “I’m so happy that I was able to overcome those.”
Here’s what you need to know about Erica Sullivan and her family:
1. Erica Sullivan’s Father, John Sullivan, Who Died of Cancer in 2017, Was a Collegiate Swimmer
Erica Sullivan’s father, John Sullivan, died of esophageal cancer in 2017, a year after he was diagnosed, according to Swimming World Magazine. He was a collegiate swimmer at the University of Wisconsin. She told reporters after qualifying for the Olympics, “I’m so glad that even though he’s gone, he’s there in spirit, and I’m sure he’s really proud of me.”
Sullivan told reporters, “He always kept me on top of my game. He was my motivator. He kept me sharp. After he passed, it was hard for a really long time. I know he wanted me to keep training through a lot of it. So I did. And I made the national team for the first time four weeks after he passed. So that’s a really nice feeling. Like, ‘hey, look what I did.’ I’d like to think he’d be proud of me where I am right now.”
She said she dealt with anxiety, panic attacks, depression and PTSD after her father’s death. She told reporters, “Over the years I’ve been really learning to try to turn everything off in my head and just be able to do what I needed to do. It’s good to be able to shut everything off and have swimming as kind of escape during all this stuff.”
After qualifying for the Olympics, Sullivan told USASwimming.org, “I know my dad will be there cheering me on. In fact, he would be a wreck. He was such an emotional fellow. He’d be crying for days on end.”
2. Erica Sullivan’s Mother, Maco Sullivan, Is Japanese & Erica Said Japan Is Her ‘Second Home’
Erica Sullivan’s mother, Maco Sullivan, is from Japan. She met Sullivan’s father, an electrical engineer, through work, according to Swimming World Magazine. Erica Sullivan is fluent in Japanese.
After qualifying for the Olympics, she said about Japan, “It’s literally my second home and I love it there. I found that in recent years I tend to identify with my Japanese side more than with my American side.”
Sullivan told Swimming World Magazine, “It wasn’t until I got out of high school and I really started to crave my Asian heritage and culture, and I really honed into it. “Luckily I found a community through anime watchers, and I found my own little network that I grew to love.”
3. Erica Sullivan Came Out as Gay in 2017 & Said She Hopes She Can Be a ‘Good Role Model’
Erica Sullivan came out as gay in 2017. She said in an interview in 2021 with The Social Kick, “A lot of people don’t originally know [that she is Asian-American] because I look very white. But I know a lot of people who find me through the queer community first and then they’re like ‘Oh, she’s Asian-American, too.’ So it becomes like an umbrella representing with the queer community and the Asian-American community, it’s like a little double combo.”
She told USASwimming.org, “At the end of the day, I can do nothing but own it and be myself. And if that can inspire anyone else to come out, that’s just amazing to me. I hope I can be a good role model to them. I get so many messages and I can’t respond to them all, but if they need someone to talk to, their voice will be heard. I want to let them know that at the end of the day, I’m just a person, too, just as much as they are. If I got through it, so can they. I’d love to be a beacon of hope. I’d love to be that role model. It just gets better and that’s a message that everyone needs to hear every once in a while.”
Sullivan wrote on Instagram, “For the girls, gays, and theys (and anyone else who doesn’t feel represented in the sport). Beyond blessed to able to wear the Team USA cap one more time. Thank you to everyone in my corner who has managed to try to make me a functioning human being the last few years. I won’t let the communities that I represent down. Hope to make you guys proud <3.”
She also shared her coming out story in 2019, writing on Instagram, “I came out to my teammates and friends two years ago, at first as bi but then as gay. No one had any negative reactions and I was happy. I had thought that I wouldn’t tell anyone else and I would keep it to myself until I went off to college where I could have a fresh start and a chance to ‘reinvent’ myself.”
She added, “Last year my coach found out and I decided to live my life the way I wanted to (life’s too short to be someone else). Since then, I’ve felt more comfortable with myself showing up to practice and it shows in my training. I started to take care of myself (slightly) more because I wanted to seem more presentable. Currently, my teammates and I crack lighthearted jokes about ‘gay power’ and memories of straight Erica. This sport is an amazing sport with some wonderful people. From my club team to Team USA, the love shown for each other regardless of gender or sexuality is absolutely amazing. Love yourself first then show that same amount of love to others. #lovewins and Love is Love is Love is Love.”
4. Erica Sullivan Has a Younger Sister, Nina
Erica Sullivan has a younger sister, Nina. Her sister wrote on Instagram, “not everyday you get to see your big sister make the olympic team💗so incredibly proud of ric, i love you!”
Sullivan and her family live in Las Vegas, Nevada. She was a member of the Sandpipers of Nevada swimming team. When her sister turned 16 in 2020, Sullivan wrote on Instagram, “Happy 16th Birthday Nina. Thanks for yelling at me when I mess up Tiktok dances. You keep life fun, I love you my sweet prince. Have a sexy sweet sixteen.”
5. Erica Sullivan’s Family & Friends Are Cheering Her on From Home as She Competes in Tokyo
While Sullivan will feel at home in Japan, her family and friends will be cheering her on from afar, as spectators are not allowed inside the aquatic center in Tokyo.
Sullivan told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I was just stubborn. Stubborn and stupidly competitive. That can be a weakness in day-to-day life, but use what people deem as a weakness to your strength and keep trying and show up every day. As long as you’re having fun, it’s going to pay off.”