Japanese American swimmer Erica Sullivan made history by winning the silver medal on Wednesday in the very first women’s 1500-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics.
Sullivan placed second with a time of 15:41.41, four seconds behind gold medalist Katie Ledecky.
Sullivan, 20, a native of Las Vegas and a two-time open water national champion, is fully bilingual and has family in Ofuna, about 30 minutes from Tokyo. Her mother Maco is a Japanese citizen and lives in the U.S. on a green card.
“I grew up predominantly in an Asian home. My mom speaks to me in Japanese, I answer in Japanese. I spoke English with a thick Asian accent until I was five,” Sullivan said in her press conference.
“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. It’s awesome.”
Sullivan came out as gay in 2007 and she said she embodies America.
“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.”
Sullivan and Ledecky embraced after they finished 1-2 in the event. The win gave Ledecky her fifth gold medal, tying with Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary for the most gold medals in individual swimming events. Speaking to Team USA afterwards, Sullivan said she initially didn’t realize she won silver.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize I got second until I saw (Ledecky) slam the water,” Sullivan said, “so I was like, ‘Oh wow, she must have done something really good.’ And then I looked up, and was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I did something really good.’”