Erica Sullivan on Getting a DM from Camila Cabello and Representing Queer Asian Americans at Olympics

Erica Sullivan is the first-ever silver medalist in the women's 1500m swim at the Olympics

Erica Sullivan
Erica Sullivan. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Erica Sullivan is good at "preaching some positivity" — and, of course, swimming.

So good, in fact, that the 20-year-old Las Vegas native won the first-ever silver medal in the women's 1500m freestyle, which was added to the roster of swim races for the Tokyo Summer Games.

"It's crazy," the soon-to-be college student tells PEOPLE of her second-place finish after speaking on a panel about being a grant recipient of Procter & Gamble's Athletes for Good Fund, which provides funds to Olympians so that they can donate to the charity or cause of their choice.

Sullivan is excited to use that opportunity to support the LGBTQ community, of which she's a part. But she's also focused on another recent exciting development: a direct message from Camila Cabello.

She tells PEOPLE about that moment (which left her in "bed sobbing, hysterically") and more of her Olympic journey.

You were great on the panel. For PEOPLE readers who weren't watching, can you talk a little bit about the Athletes for Good Fund and your participation?

I've always made it clear that I wanted to be a voice and I try to make it a priority to inspire. Through just me speaking out when I got my silver medal in a press conference, everything really took off from there.

And I didn't really intend for that to happen, I just kind of spoke my truth, and through me speaking P&G reached out in my Instagram DMs. And I couldn't turn it down. P&G provided me an opportunity to pick a charity of my choosing and be able to donate some money to the LGBTQ+ Center of Southern Nevada. It's an honor, and the fact that they're doing that shows how ahead of the curve and how far they're willing to go to put some good into the world.

So not only are you a silver medalist, but you're the first-ever silver medalist in the women's 1500m freestyle swim. How does that feel?

It's absolutely crazy. And honestly, I always tell people I was at the right place at the right time. I think it was Katie Ledecky who really pushed the limit to try to make the 1500m a sport, because I feel like people wanted it but there wasn't a direct need for it. I think she really pushed the narrative to get the 1500m in there.

But has it sunk in yet that you're an Olympic medalist? Are you still pinching yourself?

I've wanted a medal all my life, but I've realized how many people think that's a big deal. I think I always thought it was a big deal because it's all I've ever wanted. But the fact that other people are also taking notice is a big deal. I've always been obsessed with Camila Cabello and she followed me on Instagram and almost everyone in The Wilds cast and the creator reached out, and Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath and Christen Press DMed me. And I was like, "Oh my God, wait, this is a big deal. This is a really big deal." And I guess that's what it took for me to realize like, "Oh my God, this is really something."

Your mom's Japanese. What does it mean to have your first Games be here and kind of pair your two heritages together?

It gave me a level of comfort that I think a lot of people didn't have, just knowing that my family was an hour away and it was in a city that I grew up in. The Tatsumi Aquatic Center — which is right across the street from the Olympic stadium — I literally grew up training there.

When I swim, I have the American flag on my head and I'm proud to wear it. But in terms of my Asian side, they didn't have to accept me with open arms and they totally did. And honestly, that makes me so proud to not only be an American but also to be Japanese and combo together and be Japanese-American. So I hope I represent those two groups well.

Erica Sullivan and Katie Ledecky
Erica Sullivan (left) and Katie Ledecky. Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

There were more openly LGBTQ athletes in this Games than ever before and you're part of that group.

Honestly, it's just like, that's so cool that we've pushed the narrative so far and it's becoming normalized. And I can't speak for everyone else because I'm sure some of those people on that list had to have some hard coming-out stories with the list that big, it couldn't be easy. But I'm just so fortunate enough to be in a position where the closet was just glass and I think everyone kind of knew when I came out [at 16] and I was accepted with open arms.

It makes me excited for the next few years, because if there are that many athletes now, how normalized will it be at the next Games?

What do you hope young queer fans see and think when they see you accomplishing these things?

I thought to be a role model it has to be people younger than me and I thought it would be the younger kids who really look up to me. But I've had a real big awakening to see how many people older than me have reached out. And they're like, "You're so inspiring." But I'm like, "What have I done? It's like, you guys paved the way. I'm just basking in your guys' glory. I'm following the path that you guys blazed."

The younger ones, I hope it inspires them to join the sport. And honestly, I just want to inspire them to be themselves.

So we talked about the cool DMs you got. You've also kind of been a social media queen. Was it fun to kind of have that platform to share your experience in the athletes' village and get all these new fans?

I've been writing tweets for years thinking that no one would ever read them. And when you wake up one morning and you have a bunch of teenage girls ... caring about the content you've produced, it's definitely overwhelming in some sense. And the fact that I went into the village with 900 Twitter followers and I left with 12K is just baffling to me.

What did Camila Cabello say when she messaged you? What did you talk about?

I was DMing her, I was like, "Girl, please notice me." Because my press conference kind of blew up on the Today show Instagram and she had posted it on her story, but she wasn't responding to my DMs. I was like, "Girl, that is literally me. I am on your story, just respond." [Once she responded] I had to send her a tweet that I sent. In 2016, she saw the Olympic swim team and she tweeted saying, "The Olympic swim team though." And I quote tweeted it in 2016 saying, "I guess I'll become an Olympian now." And five years later after I made the Olympic team, I quote tweeted it and said, "Hey Camila Cabello, I know this is five years too late, but I'm still single."

So that was like a long-term, five-year tweet chain. And so I sent it to her and she was like, "Oh my God, that's amazing. Where do you live? We need to meet up."

She fueled your journey to becoming an Olympian.

She really did. She honestly did.

So you're going to the University of Texas at Austin for college. What are you looking forward to most? I know you deferred for a few years, so I'm sure you're extra excited.

I knew I wanted to do film since I was around 14 years old. I just didn't know to what extent. I was originally committed to [the University of South California] to go study film. But honestly, I had committed to that school when I was 16 and by the time I turned 19, 20, I just realized I wasn't the same person that I was and decided I needed to value my swim career a little bit more and started looking at other schools and found Texas. And the coaching staff there's the dream. Austin's a dream.

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I'm really excited to go to Austin and really reach the limits of my film career. I think USC does a really good job at providing a mainstream film, but I really liked the indie film scene in Austin. My favorite thing about Austin is just the city and the swim team there just has such a soft spot in my heart. And they made it a priority to make me a priority, which is amazing.

One last thing ... are you going to take your medal with you to college?

That's a hard one. Do I really want it in the dorm room? Honestly, I think I'll leave it at home for my mom and my family to hold here. And maybe if I finally settled down into a house a few years down the road, I'll take it back. But I'm getting the Olympic rings tattooed on my side in the next few days. So I think that's a pretty cool flex in itself.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

To learn more about Team USA, visit Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.

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