IRVINE, Calif. – What did Hali Flickinger have to lose except her tonsils?
The 24-year-swimmer had been sick off and on for three years. Last year, Flickinger was sick four of her five meets, but still won her first national title in the 200-meter butterfly.
“Everybody gets sick,” she said, “but I was getting sick every single month. To not have that burden, ‘Oh, I’m going to get sick,’ the stress is gone.”
On Wednesday, sans tonsils, Flickinger won her second title at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships.
Flickinger also claimed the last remaining major records held by “Madame Butterfly” herself, Mary T. Meagher.
Flickinger clocked 2 minutes, 5.87 seconds in the morning preliminaries to eclipse Meagher’s 1981 time of 2:05.96, which broke the U.S. Open (races held in the United States) and meet record.
That record stood almost 37 years.
“It’s crazy that she did that that long ago,” Flickinger said, “and I know how hard it was for me to do it this morning.”
She couldn’t stop grinning, even after she slowed a bit in the final with a time of 2:06.14. Katie Drabot was second in 2:07.18 at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
“Everyone asked me this morning, ‘Were you expecting to go that?’ Flickinger said. “The emotion I had on my face was not out of shock. It was just all relief. I’ve dealt with my health for so long and for it to be not be an issue any more is such a relief. Now I can just swim and show everyone what I’ve trained to do.”
Flickinger, 24, was seventh in the 200-meter butterfly at the Olympic Games 2016 Rio and ninth in the event at the 2017 world championships in Budapest, Hungary.
“It’s the breakthrough we’ve sort of been wanting for almost three years,” said her coach, Jack Bauerle of the University of Georgia. “And to her credit she just kept hanging tough. It’s not easy to go pretty fast and plateau. And even though you’re making a team you’re still not doing what you feel like you’re capable of. And hats off to her for never throwing it in.”
Flickinger said she was told she had a virus in the mononucleosis family that was similar to mono in that it stayed in her system.
“I was getting run down from this virus,” she said, “and from training. Then my tonsils became ‘cryptic.’”
It was similar to a throat infection as bacteria and food were caught in her tonsils, causing her to get sick.
Yet Flickinger balked at getting her tonsils out because she knew she would miss a lot of training.
When Flickinger got home from worlds she saw a doctor.
“She was like, ‘I don’t know how you did this for three years,’” the Pennsylvania native said. “She wanted them out immediately.”
Flickinger replied, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to push that to two weeks if that’s OK.”
After all, she had her wedding to go to. Flickinger and German swimmer Martin Grodzki had a formal wedding (they were originally married in May 2016) – with Bauerle officiating – on Aug. 26. Flickinger had her tonsils out four days later.
“Yeah, so the honeymoon’s this summer,” Flickinger said, “because I was on bedrest after the wedding last summer.”
They’ll go to Cancun, Mexico, a short hop from Athens, Georgia, to make up for the long trip to Tokyo for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships.
“I won’t be changing my last name until I’m done swimming,” she said, “but Flickinger is hard, too, so really it doesn’t matter.”
After her operation, Flickinger was out of the pool for two months. “You can’t train when your throat is literally ripped up,” she said.
Milkshakes eased the pain.
Flickinger was eager to get back into the water. “I just love training and just trying to be the best in the world and the best I can be,” she said. “Obviously I’ve worked very hard to get what I have and it’s just cool to be able to show everybody you don’t have to be 6-foot to be great at a sport. If you work hard, you can achieve anything and I think that’s such a lesson to be able to teach to people.”
At 5-foot-6, Flickinger is small for a butterflier.
However, Bauerle said, “Her strength to body weight is exceptional.”
On Wednesday, Flickinger said she trusted her training, worked on her mental game and was relaxed in the record-breaking morning swim.
“I definitely know there’s more in the tank but that just showed me that it’s going to come,” Flickinger said. “I was getting a little impatient.”
She was so “amped up” that she didn’t take a nap before the evening session as she normally does. “I just tried to keep as cool as I could,” Flickinger said. “It’s kind of hard, but I did my best.”
She said she expected to hear from Meagher, now Mary Plant, whose daughter, Maddie, has been in charge of the timers at Georgia the past couple of years.
“She reached out to people that I know to try to get in touch with me,” Flickinger said, “so I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”