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Spring Grove honors Olympic athlete Hali Flickinger on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016.

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As an Olympian, NCAA national champion and USA Swimming national champion, Hali Flickinger knew what it felt like to win.

But after years of battling illness and self-doubt, the Spring Grove graduate decided it was necessary to stay out of the pool for a while in 2017 to focus on her health, physically and mentally, in the hopes of becoming the elite swimmer she knew she could be.

“I was becoming really impatient with the lack of results,” Flickinger said. “I knew how I was training. My coaches knew how I was training. And I was nowhere near what I believed I could do. It was years after years of being disappointed. I was just tired of that feeling and needed to step away from the sport in order to remember why I am doing this — because I love the sport.”

It's now obvious that the time away did a world of good for Flickinger, who has regained her passion for the sport and recently posted the fastest time in the world for 2019 in the 200-meter butterfly.

Much-needed surgery: One of the issues holding back the 2016 Olympian was her tonsils. Flickinger said she would get either strep throat, tonsillitis or a viral infection once or twice a month, which led to dehydration in training. She delayed the necessary surgery because it meant extended time out of the pool.

Flickinger said the doctors couldn’t believe she still had her tonsils when they saw them. The doctors told her she had divots in her tonsils that were causing the recurring illnesses and removed her tonsils and her adenoids.

She took the time off when she couldn’t train to focus on herself. Flickinger married Martin Grodzki, a fellow swimmer at the University of Georgia, where she was a three-time national champion. Grodzki also won a NCAA title at Georgia and competed internationally for Germany.

During her three months out of the pool, Flickinger relaxed with Grodzki, her dog, Teagan, and two cats, Calvin and Lilly, and reflected on how she ended up in a spot where she wasn’t enjoying the sport she cared so much about.

“I was becoming more concerned about the outcomes and being so disappointed in myself that I really needed to step back and find my love (for swimming) again. I really believed that once I found that, the results would come.”

Focused on mental health: After the layoff, the results came almost immediately for Flickinger. Following just more than a month of training once she got back in the pool, she put up one of her best times and realized how much she had been ignoring her mental approach to swimming.

“It showed me that your mental health is way more important than your physical abilities,” Flickinger said. “My physical abilities are there. I’ve put in the work, but I was lacking confidence. I had this new-found appreciation for what I was doing.”

That revelation led Flickinger to begin working with multiple sports psychologists and open up about how she was scared when she entered races and feared what she viewed as inevitable disappointment when she touched the wall each race.

“It was kind of hard for me to admit it at first,” Flickinger said. “Luckily, nowadays more and more people are coming out and talking about needing to (get help). It was a changing point for me.”

Flickinger used her improved mental and physical health and got to work in the pool. She started to work with the distance swimmers at Georgia where she trains and Grodzki coaches the senior group at Athens Bulldogs Swim Club.

Starting to see results: In July 2018, Flickinger’s confidence got a boost when she won the 200-meter butterfly title at the USA Swimming National Championships. She also broke a record that was held for nearly 37 years by butterfly legend Mary T. Meagher in the preliminary round of the meet.

“I have been doing this for so long and finally believing that I can do this is what is (different) now,” Flickinger said. “Even though I had a great swim, that is nowhere near the goals I have. It was just a stepping stone to where I believe I can be.”

Flickinger rode the momentum from her first national title into the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo, Japan, the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics. She won gold in the 200-meter butterfly and continued to build off the adjustments she made the previous year.

On June 1, Flickinger added to her recent string of dominant performances when the former York YMCA standout became the world No. 1 in the 200-meter butterfly after she won the event at the FINA Champions Swim Series in Indianapolis with a time of 2 minutes, 6.40 seconds. 

“She’s finally realizing what everyone else already knew — she’s pretty damn good at what she does,” Grodzki said.

As she prepares for the 2019 FINA World Championships, set for July 12-28, in Gwangju, South Korea, Flickinger was announced as a member of the Cali Condors, one of the eight teams in the International Swimming League (ISL), the first professional swimming league.

Flickinger said she was honored to be a part of the league and was excited to be a member of a team for the first time since college, other than her role on the U.S. squad. The ISL season is set to begin in October.

“It meant so much to me,” Flickinger said. “I truly believe our sport has so much room to grow and this is just the beginning for our sport. I’m really thankful to be a part of it.”

The best is yet to come: Despite the success she had after finding her love for swimming again in 2018, Flickinger said she has room to grow and has more to accomplish, with the 2019 World Championships and 2020 Summer Olympics in the near future. She finished seventh in the 200 butterfly at the 2016 Olympics.

“I am proud that I overcame the challenges I had,” Flickinger said. “It means everything to me. I love this sport. I have done some great things, but there is so much more I want to do in this sport.”

Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.

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