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US Olympic swimmer Erica Sullivan deserves the gold for her wit and charm

Sullivan is savoring the 16 minutes she had a world record before superstar Katie Ledecky erased it.
/ Source: TODAY

There might not be anyone having more fun in Tokyo than swimmer Erica Sullivan.

The 20-year-old Las Vegas native has been having a blast inside and outside the pool, showing off her funny personality and charming local reporters with her fluent Japanese — all while making sure she's leaving Tokyo with a medal around her neck.

Sullivan made history on Tuesday when she brought home the silver medal in the first women's 1,500-meter freestyle in Olympic history behind world-record holder Katie Ledecky. She did it in a country that she frequently visited as a child, as her mother is a Japanese citizen living in America on a green card.

Erica Sullivan shows off her silver medal in Tokyo after finishing second in the first women's 1,500-meter freestyle race in Olympic history. Odd Andersen / AFP via Getty Images

"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 in her press conference afterward. "It’s awesome."

Sullivan also joked about her performance in the qualifying heats before Ledecky stole her thunder.

"Fun fact: I had the Olympic record for 16 minutes. @katieledecky put in the work and threw down the heat after. But I’ll proceed to flex my 16 minutes," she tweeted on Monday.

Her Twitter bio also notes that she is "good at not drowning... sometimes."

She is more than happy to share the spotlight with Ledecky, who gave her a big hug after they finished first and second in the race.

Swimming - Olympics: Day 5
Katie Ledecky (right) hugs Erica Sullivan after they finished 1-2 in the women's 1,500-meter freestyle race in Tokyo. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

"It's just awesome that I get to do this and really set a landmark for women and also get to do it in Japan where I have half my family," Sullivan said on TODAY Wednesday. "It means a lot, and it's always an honor to do it beside Katie because Katie's going to forever be in the history books, so the fact that I get to be a small little footnote in that is awesome."

She was asked after the race if she saw Ledecky's feet when she was finishing.

"Um, I saw her wake," Sullivan told "I’ve never actually seen Katie’s feet in a race unless I’m severely out too fast."

Sullivan was then asked if she thought she had a shot at catching the six-time Olympic gold medal winner.

"Do you know who that girl is?" Sullivan said. "Hell, no."

2021 U.S. Olympic Trials - Swimming - Day 7
Sullivan has showed off her fun-loving side in press conferences and on social media during her time in Tokyo. Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

Sullivan spoke in fluent Japanese to reporters after her race while also expanding on everything from her upbringing to training in the "absolutely disgusting" Lake Mead during the pandemic, and representing the LGBTQ+ community.

Sullivan, who came out as publicly gay in 2017, said in the press conference that she is the "epitome of an American person."

"I’m multicultural. I’m queer. I’m a lot of minorities. That’s what America is," she said. "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 be able to establish what you want to do with your life."

Her drive to get prepared for Tokyo also led her to train in Lake Mead outside Las Vegas when pool access was restricted due to the pandemic. The conditions were less than ideal.

"There's just duck poop everywhere, and it’s murky," she said. "It’s a solid brown-green on a good day. It’s just gross. … We were getting duck mites. Apparently they like to eat on ducks’ poop, and they like still water. We were covered in bites. It was just nasty. It built character development. I’m funnier because of it."

Beneath the humor is also a 20-year-old who has faced serious adversity. Her father, John, who was a swimmer himself at the University of Wisconsin, died in 2017 from cancer only three months after he was diagnosed. Sullivan, who was 16 at the time, made the national team only four weeks after his death.

Swimming - Olympics: Day 5
Sullivan has persevered through the death of her father when she was just 16 to become one of the top distance swimmers in the world. Abbie Parr / Getty Images

"The last five years, I've had a lot of struggles, and I think everyone knows that. It's pretty much (an) open book now," she said in the press conference. "But it feels good to have it all finally pay off, and I really hope I can be like a beacon of hope to anyone who's struggling with mental health or coming out or any minority that they are, to show that there's hope, and honestly me getting to do it here, where half my family is from, means the world."

While her family was unable to be in Tokyo on Tuesday night due to a ban on spectators, they have been a crucial part of her journey. Her late grandfather even served as an architect on some of the Olympic venues in Tokyo.

"It's surprising and it's really cool that everything just happened to line up and work out," Sullivan said on TODAY. "My mom would've loved to be here, but she's at home in Vegas cheering us on."

Sullivan is also making the most of her time in the spotlight when it comes to meeting Olympic stars.

"I would like to use this shot to say that if the women’s soccer team, especially Tobin Heath and Christen Press, would like to reach out, that would mean the world," she said at the press conference.

At the rate she's going, it will be the women's soccer team who's excited to meet her.