Michael Phelps isn’t going to the Olympics, but his lead is


NYT > Sports

In the women’s 400 IM final on the first evening, another mentee from Phelps, Hali Flickinger, appeared who didn’t need the hard love he had for Kalisz. She was her own worst opponent, admitted it and sabotaged her success with negative self-talk. Flickinger moved to Tempe, Arizona after the 2019 World Cup to train with Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman. She had earned a silver medal in the 200 butterfly, which hung around her neck like a wooden nickel because she had lost the gold by swimming in a panicked race and was overtaken by the Hungarian Boglarka Kapas in the last few meters.

Flickinger stayed with Phelps, his wife Nicole, and their three young sons until her husband from Georgia came to see her. Many afternoons after training, she kept Phelps company in the kitchen while he prepared dinner and shared his racing mindset.

“When I got to Arizona, there was a lot I had to figure out mentally,” said Flickinger.

A conversation stuck in her head. She asked Phelps what he was thinking when he stepped on the blocks. He told her he lived for the races because they were the reward for all of his hard work. The races were the most fun for him while swimming and the bigger the stage, the more fun he got. His embrace of the moment, he said, came from his excitement about paying off all the work he’d paid for.

His answer flipped a switch in Flickinger’s head. She remembered that her way of thinking was the exact opposite. “I was afraid of races,” she says. “It’s only been years of thinking wrong and worrying about things that I can’t control.”

As 2019 turned into 2020, Flickinger continued to have conversations with Phelps about process and positivity. At the same time Phelps heard from Bowman about Flickinger’s ability to work. She did butterfly sets and punitive IM workouts that baffled his mind. When he told her that he couldn’t imagine some of the things she would do in practice, Flickinger was incredulous.

“I’ve often left these sets disappointed because I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Flickinger, who gained confidence by seeing herself as a performer through the eyes of her sport’s greatest champion.

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