My Best Friend is More Talented Than Yours

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the ravenous animals known as intoxicated human beings are back in crowded bars screaming to “good 4 u” by Olivia Rodrigo. Alas, the wild summer of 2021 that the world has so deserved has arrived at our doorstep. Work? Family? Responsibilities? Who cares? We need this.

While I hope that all of you party until your pretty little maskless faces fall off, there is one event this summer that I do ask that you pay some attention to — an event with much less alcohol, but much more talented people than are filling the bars. Like everything else in 2020, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, and will now be taking place, sans fans, in the upcoming months. Similar to my approach with politics, I really only care about these sports every four years — but I’ll be so goddamn patriotic that you’ll think that the results have been keeping me up at night every day since the last time.

Well, I take that back — there is one Olympic sport that I do follow in between the main events — swimming. The sport that dominated nearly every second of my life from the age of 5 to 20. You’d think that with all the time, blood, sweat, and tears I put into swimming, perhaps I’d be competing on the world’s biggest stage, but I never even came close. Coming in as one of the most boring, time-consuming, and difficult sports of all-time (by my very official rankings), making it to the Olympics in swimming is nearly impossible. Only the top two swimmers in each event will go on to represent their country, and I was never even good enough to sniff the Olympic Trials.

However, someone very near and dear to my heart, who I have known since we were six years old, worked harder and with more determination and grit than I have ever witnessed up close. She’s still working this way, probably even more so, which is why she qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and is likely to do so again this week. My best friend, Hali Flickinger of Spring Grove, PA, has sat atop the women’s 200 butterfly standings in the United States for the past few years, and is a near-lock to make the team in this event yet again. She will also be vying for spots in the 200 freestyle, 400 individual medley, and the 200 backstroke. With nine qualifying times, she is eligible to compete in more events than any other swimmer at Trials.

Growing up, if you looked at Hali outside of the pool, you’d have no idea she’d become the world-dominant athlete that she is today. She knows that. She is “short” for a female swimmer, and used to be so skinny that I have called her “Squirrel” more than I have “Hali” over the past 20 years. But man, did she ever glide over that water with ease. She still does.

These days, however, Hali doesn’t look much like a squirrel. She knew she was tinier than everyone else, so she simply worked harder in the weight room to become so big and strong that she could probably take me out with a swift kick of her pinky toe. She’s the only person I’ve ever met who actually does not let anything get in her way — whether or not it’s related to swimming. She makes a plan, and she follows it to perfection.

When you’re a young swimmer, everyone’s dream is to go to the Olympics. As you get older, you realize there’s almost zero chance of that happening, so you settle for some big travel meets and maybe a few years in a Division I program (see: me). At a certain point, the jig is up. But not Hali. While most of us had accepted our fate early on, we all knew that if anyone was going to make it, it was going to be Hali. She couldn’t fathom the thought of not pursuing her dreams. I wish that I could approach anything in my life the way that Hali has approached swimming.

She competes in everything. Now I know that if you’re a man on Hinge, you’ve probably written on your profile “I am overly competitive about everything” in one of your prompts, but I promise you, you’ve never met Hali Flickinger. One time, when we were little, in the pool at my house, and my uncle was launching pool basketballs into the air. We’d all jump up in the air and try to catch them — except little Squirrel was eating all of us alive, like catching those balls would win her a million dollars, so none of us really had a chance. I can still recall my uncle being blown away by her that day. Something as simple as a dumb little game was enough for her to make an impression on others. Our club coach used to preach excellence — and she exudes it in everything that she does.

One might think it could be hard competing alongside your best friend in a sport that she’s dominating in while you’re nearly drowning on occasion, but I’ve never once felt that way. When Hali got her first Olympic Trial cut in the 400 IM, I was in the lane right next to her, adding a zillion seconds to my time and looking for the closest lifeguard. When I exited the pool, I wasn’t sure if I was crying because I had narrowly escaped death or because I was so happy for Hali. I always have been and always will be one of her biggest fans (I can’t say “the biggest” because her entire family is absolutely incredible and that would be insulting to them).

I’ll always have our first encounter to hold onto, though. At one of our first meets together, on different teams, six-year-old Hali and I had competed in a short 25-yard event. Following the race, we both sat on a bench together, in tears (not the last time this would happen). I was crying because I didn’t know if I had gotten first or second, and Hali was crying because she’d finished dead last. This is my claim to fame, and one of Hali’s favorite stories to tell people.

Years later as teenagers, she joined my team at the York YMCA, with a cast on her hand for a broken finger. I recall asking my mom, “What happened to Hali? I thought she was fast.” “Caroline, she has a cast on.” “Yeah, but she’s soooo slow.” One day, not long after, she passed me in practice on a backstroke set, and she never looked back. I’m okay with it.

So whether you’re a former swimmer yourself or have zero interest in the matter, I ask that you join me in cheering on Hali this week, and hopefully, next month in Tokyo. I could go on and on about how deserving she is of everything she has worked for, but we don’t have the time. Just trust me. She loves her animals, Billie Eilish, eating 100,000 calories a day, putting a smile on peoples’ faces, and working her ass off. What’s not to root for? I promise you that there is no one better to represent the USA.

Spring Grove's Hali Flickinger ranked No. 1 in world in 200 butterfly

And seriously, how cute is she? Look at that smile. 🙂

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