The women’s 400 I.M. final on the first night featured another of Phelps’s mentees, Hali Flickinger, who didn’t need any of the tough love he doled out to Kalisz. She was her own worst adversary, she admitted, sabotaging her success with negative self-talk. Flickinger moved to Tempe, Ariz., to train with Phelps’s longtime coach, Bob Bowman, after the 2019 World Championships. She had earned a silver medal in the 200 butterfly that hung like a wooden nickel around her neck because of the way she lost the gold, by swimming a panicky race and getting passed in the final meters by Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas.
Flickinger stayed with Phelps, his wife, Nicole, and their three small sons until her husband joined her from Georgia. Many afternoons after practice, she would keep Phelps company in the kitchen as he was preparing dinner and talk about his racing mind-set.
“When I got to Arizona, there was a lot that I needed to figure out mentally,” Flickinger said.
One conversation stuck in her head. She asked Phelps what he thought about when he stepped on the blocks. He told her he lived for the races because they were the reward for all his hard work. The races were the most fun he had in swimming and the bigger the stage, the greater his enjoyment. His embrace of the moment, he said, sprang from his excitement to cash out all the work he had banked.
His response flipped a switch in Flickinger’s mind. She remembered thinking her mind-set was the exact opposite. “I was scared of races,” she said. “It had just been years of me thinking the wrong way and being worried about things I can’t control.”
As 2019 turned to 2020, Flickinger continued to have conversations with Phelps about process and positivity. At the same time, Phelps was hearing from Bowman about Flickinger’s capacity for work. She did butterfly sets and punishing I.M. workouts that boggled his mind. When he told her that he couldn’t conceive of some of the things she was managing to do in practice, Flickinger was incredulous.
“I’d walk away from those sets a lot of times disappointed, not realizing what I’d done,” said Flickinger, who gained confidence by seeing herself as a performer through the eyes of her sport’s greatest champion.