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From York County to Rio: Flickinger's Olympic journey

How Spring Grove's Hali Flickinger went from small-town swimmer to Olympic hopeful.

Patrick Strohecker
505-5402/@P_Strohecker
  • Flickinger will swim in the 2016 Olympics in the 200-meter butterfly.
  • She graduated from Spring Grove in 2012.
  • She swam for the York YMCA for six years before going to the University of Georgia.
  • She was a three-time national team champion as a member of the Bulldogs.

Hali Flickinger could've been sitting in her parents' warm house in Spring Grove, enjoying her winter break, while resting and preparing for the grind of her final swimming season at the University of Georgia.

Spring Grove's Hali Flickinger will compete in this week's U.S. National Championships less than a year after swimming in the 2016 Olympics.

Instead, she chose to spend it in the pool. The same pool at the York YMCA's Graham Aquatic Center where she swam in middle school and high school. The same pool where she developed into an internationally recognized athlete, as well as an NCAA Division I recruit.

Every day, she made the 15-minute commute and swam with boys and girls seven or eight years her junior, never once letting her training dip. On days when York YMCA head coach Michael Brooks let his swimmers off from two-a-day practices, Flickinger pressed on and trained on her own.

That was the last time Flickinger swam in the Graham Aquatic Center and the last time Brooks saw her swim before the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska in late June and early July. At the time, Flickinger was just a "contender," as Brooks put it, a swimmer with an outside shot at making the Olympic Team. Yet, her performance during that week and a half showed Brooks something — something he'd never before seen out of any other swimmer he's ever coached.

"Most college swimmers, when they come home for Christmas, they find a way to miss quite a number of practices," said Brooks, who is leaving York in August to take a job at the North Carolina Aquatic Club. "But, she was here for every single one, nailed every single set of every single practice. It was the most consistently excellent training I think I’ve ever seen."

Seven months later, every meet, practice, lap and stroke that Flickinger ever poured into her swimming career paid off in the biggest way possible, when she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team, finishing second in the 200-meter butterfly at the team trials.

From small-town Spring Grove to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Flickinger is York County's Olympic hopeful.

"There were no dots to connect:" Flickinger's career as a swimmer began when she was 7, competing for the Spring Grove Swim Club.

Although Hali Flickinger hasn't swum for the club in more than four years, the current Olympian's name still sits on the record board at York YMCA for the 400 individual medley. 
Amanda J. Cain photo

It wasn't until she was almost 12 that she finally made the move to the York YMCA and Brooks. When she arrived, she showed glimpses of having the raw talent to become something special. It was just up to Brooks to coach it out of her.

"I think it’s important to note that while I was training her, she wasn’t an Olympian yet," he said. "She was a really good swimmer who worked really, really hard, who came to practice every day, who got consistently better. ... It’s interesting, you can go back now and kind of connect the dots, but, at the time, there were no dots to connect. She was just a swimmer in the pool doing really well and working very hard.”

There was never any question about Flickinger's work ethic. What she lacked in overall size, she more than made up for in her competitive drive and superb strokes. Her dominance with the elite program was such that she once held numerous club and pool records, although most have since been topped. But, four years later, she still holds one Graham Aquatic Center pool record — the 400 individual medley with a time of 4 minutes, 43.08 seconds.

By 2011, Flickinger made her junior national team debut, and it was then that she really began to realize her own potential as a swimmer.

"I think when I made my first junior team, which was in 2011, I think that’s when it hit both of us (her and Brooks) that the next step would be to make the national team and possibly the Olympics," she said.

Her first shot at Olympic glory would come in 2012, when she qualified for her first Olympic Trials. Going into it, expectations surrounding her about qualifying for the London Games weren't high, so it served more as a learning experience. Still, she felt the pressure of more than 15,000 fans' eyes peering down on her, while competing against some of the country's best swimmers. No longer was she one of the most dominant swimmers on the YMCA circuit. Instead, she was just doing whatever she could to not get blown out of the water.

While she didn't have some shocking swim that vaulted her into the Olympic qualifying conversation, the experience was just that — an experience. It gave her a taste of what it would take to make an Olympic team one day and prepare herself for 2016.

In order to take that next step, Flickinger needed to do more than just compete against Olympic-caliber swimmers. She would have to train with them.

That's what would make the next four years of her life so critical to her swimming career.

Champion Bulldog: Sometimes in life, you just know.

Hali Flickinger, left, was part of the 4x200 free relay national championship team this year in Georgia, along with teammates Kylie Stewart, second from left, Meaghan Raab, third from left, and Brittany MacLean.

You know when a decision in your life is the right one and when it's the wrong one.

Flickinger had to second guess her own college choice before landing in the perfect spot.

As a senior at Spring Grove, Flickinger was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country, attracting offers from many of the nation's top programs. Initially, she verbally committed to the University of Texas, but after backing out from her commitment, she settled on the University of Georgia, this time, for good.

"I think she sort of epitomized what we look for," Bulldogs head coach Jack Bauerle said. "She was tough, she was versatile, also, and I think she had a lot of range. ... She came from such a good program with Michael Brooks. I always feel like that anybody who comes out of his program has a good background and is prepared for what we’re going to do. So, that said, I thought she was one of the top five or six kids coming out and we went after her very hard and we sort of got more than we ever imagined."

The versatility that Bauerle saw in Flickinger while he was recruiting her paid dividends for the Georgia program. In her four years with the Bulldogs, Flickinger was part of three national championship teams and contributed to the team's success in nearly every type of stroke, excluding the breast. But, even though she didn't compete in any breaststroke events, she still needed it in her arsenal to compete in the 400 IM, widely considered the most grueling event in swimming.

After her four years of swimming at Georgia, Flickinger completed her career holding school records in the 200 butterfly and 200 backstroke. Yet, even with all the records and trophies that she won, perhaps the greatest thing Flickinger received from her time in Athens, Georgia, came from her teammates.

Olympic pedigree: While the team's success is the ultimate goal for any swimmer who competes for the Bulldogs, the reason they're always one of the best teams in the country has to do with each individual swimmer's goals.

When you commit to Georgia, you're committing to a standard of excellence, one that has an Olympic pedigree that runs as deep as the pool. Every practice, teammates compete with each other, pushing each other to higher levels of greatness. That in turn makes the overall team better. It also makes the individual swimmers better, which is crucial, since most of them have dreams that go past college and end with the Olympics.

"Everyone on the team has (Olympic) expectations, so it’s not just a few people who are trying to work hard themselves," Flickinger said. "You’re pushed everyday by your teammates to get better, get faster and reach that next level. So, Georgia, I would say, hands down, if I was not at this university, I wouldn’t have been able to excel. I have the best coaches, the best teammates that ... help me get to this level.”

Spring Grove High School graduate Hali Flickinger, right, hugs Cammile Adams after finishing second to Adams in the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games. Flickinger finished seventh in the event at Rio.

Flickinger is one of 11 current or former Georgia swimmers to qualify for this year's Olympics, eight of which will compete for Team USA.

Qualifying for Rio: Unless you were familiar with Flickinger during her time as a York County standout or with the Bulldogs, chances are, much of the country's introduction to the 22-year-old was in her national television interview with NBC Sports' Michele Tafoya following her second-place finish in the 200 butterfly, which qualified her for Rio.

Out of breath and overcome with emotion, Flickinger could hardly piece together full sentences over what it meant to her to make the Olympic team. She was standing next to one of her idols, Cammile Adams, who bested Flickinger in the 200 butterfly final at the Olympic Team Trials. In the span of a two-minute swim, however, Adams became something more than an idol. She became Flickinger's Olympic teammate.

"I can't," a breathless Flickinger told Tafoya, when asked to describe her emotions following the race. "I'm just so excited. I've looked up to Cammile since I was younger and can't believe I'm going to be on the Olympic team with her. I'm so excited."

Over the next few hours, Flickinger's life was a blur. Between fulfilling post-race media obligations, to warming down and getting changed, she didn't get a chance to celebrate with her family until several hours after her event. That night, sleep was minimal. The same excitement that engulfed her body immediately following her race prevented her from going to bed.

As soon as she arrived back at the pool the next morning, her preparation for the Olympics was already underway, even though she still had one more event to swim in at the Olympic Trials.

After Omaha, Flickinger and the rest of her Olympic-bound Georgia teammates flew back to Athens, where they would train for the next couple of weeks. It certainly helped that Bauerle was also serving as a Team USA coach for the Olympics.

"It's a comfort zone for the athlete," Bauerle said. "We're so used to working with each other, and now she doesn't get any curve ball here. She and I are used to each other. She knows that I have total respect for her and love the way she trains, and it is a little bit different. There are some idiosyncrasies that every athlete has, so it's really nice to have the knowledge of them when they go off because this is the most important time of their life."

Flickinger's Olympic-qualifying time of 2 minutes, 7.5 seconds is good for 13th fastest in the world in the 200 butterfly. In order to medal, which no female American swimmer has done in the 200 butterfly in 16 years, Bauerle thinks she'll need to shave at least a full second, possibly more, to find the medal podium. So, over the course of the last month, that's been the goal for Flickinger.

Local inspiration: Flickinger's two main coaches in her swimming career have both echoed the same sentiment about her hard work.

Spring Grove-native Hali Flickinger will be honored prior to the York Revolution's Labor Day game on Sept. 5 to recognize her for her seventh place finish in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2016 Olympics. Flickinger will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Back home in York County, that effort in the pool has inspired the same swimmers she shared the Graham Aquatic Center pool with during the winter.

"She definitely always pushed me and inspired me to go faster in practice," said Courtney Harnish, a West York senior and fellow York YMCA standout who swam with Flickinger before she went off to Georgia. Harnish also competed at the 2016 Olympic Trials. "She was always that person that was five, seven seconds ahead of everybody in practice and everyone wants to be like that, dominating practice, so she was definitely an inspiration to me."

When Flickinger dives into the pool in Rio for her preliminary swim on Aug. 9, she'll be the first York County swimmer to compete in the Olympics since 1996, when Dallastown grad Whitney Metzler — now Whitney Krosse — finished eighth in the 400 IM as an 18 year old.

Since she made her first junior national team in 2011, Flickinger's future always had the same goal — the Olympics.

Once she finishes in Rio, for the first time in years, her future will be muddied. Very few swimmers make a pro career out of the sport, so for Flickinger, it might be time to head into the real world. Recently engaged, she'll go back to Georgia and complete her studies and then have to make a decision on what her swimming future holds.

Whatever follows Flickinger's Olympic experience, she'll always carry with her the drive of a small-town girl who perfectly embodied the blue-collar nature of Papertown.

A York County athlete has made it to the sport's grandest stage.

Medal or not, that's something that can't be taken away from her.

"All I know is that it’s going to be a time that I will remember for the rest of my life," she said. "And something that I will cherish forever."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com