Hali Flickinger Locks Spot For Tokyo In 200 Butterfly, Nic Fink Finds Redemption In 200 Breaststroke
by Peggy Shinn
Hali Flickinger reacts after competing in the Women's 200m butterfly final at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials on June 16, 2021 in Omaha, Neb.
OMAHA, Neb. — Hali Flickinger swam tonight like she has something to prove. At the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Swimming, the 26-year-old passed Regan Smith in the final lap of the 200-meter butterfly and locked a spot on her second U.S. Olympic Team.
Flickinger’s time of 2:05.85 was a personal best and set the U.S. Olympic Team Trials record. It’s also the second fastest time swum so far this year. After her second place finish in the women’s 400-meter individual medley on the first night of trials, Flickinger will swim that event in Tokyo as well.
“It’s another opportunity that I get to represent the U.S.,” she said describing her immediate thoughts after the race. “So I was relieved but super happy.”
She finished over one second ahead of Smith, 19, who qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in the 100-meter backstroke already.
Flickinger’s win comes on the heels of a silver medal in the 200 fly at the 2019 world championships — a race that on paper looks like an improvement on her performance at the 2016 Rio Games, where she finished seventh.
But in that race at worlds, Flickinger was in the lead until the final meters when she was passed by Boglarka Kapas from Hungary.
It was that race that drove Flickinger to make changes. In the fall of 2019, she moved from her training base in Athens, Georgia, to Arizona to train with Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s coach, and made clear to Bowman what her struggles were.
“I just had a little too much pressure on my shoulders, and in the 200 fly, I was carrying a lot of self-doubt every time I stepped up on the block,” she explained. “I made sure that Bob was aware of that when I walked into his office because it's something I wanted to hit head on.”
Her new teammates at Sun Devil Swimming helped her conquer her self-doubt. They spent every day together during the pandemic and helped take her mind away from her struggles.
“I was able to spend so much time with them, which I think really helped relieve my mind because I was just having fun and enjoying it,” she said.
Bowman also worked on technique with Flickinger — “critiquing the little things and at [age] 26, the little things mean a lot,” she said. And he broadened her program to include more strokes than butterfly.
“When I go to practice every day, there's not just one focus on 200 fly which, like I said earlier, was something that I talked about right away. So he just made sure that whatever we did, it didn't have to be fly.”
Going to Tokyo, Flickinger will be a favorite to win gold in the 200 butterfly, self-doubt behind her.
“What happened in the final [at 2019 world championships] I've worked really hard to make sure that that hopefully never happens again,” she stated. “And I'm just glad that the improvements that I've worked on are starting to show.”
A handful of men, including 2016 Olympian Kevin Cordes, had lead the 200-meter breaststroke standings since the Rio Games. Would one of them prevail? Or would it be young Matt Fallon, who lit up the pool by winning the prelims, then the semis?
Nic Fink took the honors. The 27-year-old from the Athens Bulldog Swim Club avenged a fingernail-length loss in the 100 breaststroke the other night to qualify for his first Olympic team. He finished the 200 breaststroke in 2:07.55 — a personal best — and out-touched Bulldog teammate Andrew Wilson by a half-body length.
Fink climbed out of the pool and just looked relieved.
“For the 100, I imagined myself being way more excited and splashing water and yelling and all that stuff,” he said. “But after the third place and the two days of reflection, I realized that I was definitely more relieved than excited.”
“Not to say that I'm not excited,” he added. “But it was definitely a sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it. I wanted to let it sink in.”
He held back his emotions rather than “being a mess out there,” quipping, “there’s enough water in the pool, I didn’t need to add more with waterworks.”
The emotions are a long time coming for Fink. He competed in both 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials but failed to make the team both times.
As he matured over the past five years, Fink gained perspective. He realized that he had put too much emphasis on Trials. He had to make the U.S. Olympic Team.
“One of the biggest reasons that I spun my wheels in 2016 and had a pretty poor meet was because I envisioned myself winning, and there was no other option,” he explained. “The reality is that this is a really fast meet, there's a lot of fast people here. And if you put the entirety of your career on one meet, then it kind of nullifies everything else that you do.”
Fink has learned to “contextualize” results. He knows there are plenty of successful athletes who never make an Olympic team and that his success would not rest on this one meet.
This time around was less stressful for Fink, even though he narrowly missed qualifying in the 100 breaststroke and joked that he had not cut his fingernails since that night. He walked out onto the pool deck for the 200 breaststroke like a prizefighter, raising his clenched hands in mock celebration.
Fink was particularly happy for Bulldog teammate Wilson, who will likely be nominated to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team at the end of trials. This was Wilson’s second Olympic trials meet; he finished fourth place in the 200 breaststroke in 2016.
“We've put in some great work this year,” Fink said of the Athens Bulldog team, which includes Wilson and Cordes (who finished fourth). “Having Kevin there as a training partner — it's tough to see him not make it — but Andrew and I and even Chase [Kalisz] have done really good breaststroke work all year and, it's really fun to see it pay off for me and Andrew.”
In Tokyo, Fink and Wilson will have their work cut out for them. Since the 200 breaststroke made the Olympic program in 1908, American men have only won 14 medals in the event —only five of them gold. A U.S. swimmer has not won the event since 1992.