American Women 200 Butterfly Juggernaut: Can Anyone Beat Hali Flickinger and Regan Smith?

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Hali Flickinger has been the top American swimmer in the women's 200 butterfly for a half-decade -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

American Women 200 Butterfly Juggernaut: Can Anyone Beat Hali Flickinger and Regan Smith?

Five years ago at the FINA World Championships, as the United States won a then-record 38 medals in the pool with 18 golds, only two races went without an American finalist. In the men’s 1500 freestyle, a 17-year-old Bobby Finke placed 21st, well before he would become an Olympic gold medalist, and in the women’s 200 butterfly, Hali Flickinger had been struggling with health issues, and she missed the final by seven hundredths while longtime stalwart Cammile Adams had just retired following the 2016 Olympics.

At that point, the four-lap butterfly race was clearly the weakest event for the American women. But fast forward a few years, and that narrative has completely flipped. Flickinger won gold in the 200 fly at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, and one year later, she and Katie Drabot both earned podium spots at the 2019 World Championships. In 2021, as Zhang Yufei dominated the race for Olympic gold, but Regan Smith picked up the silver medal while Flickinger secured bronze.

This year, Flickinger won Worlds silver while a disappointing race left Smith fourth, but despite that result, the Americans still have a juggernaut duo atop the power rankings in the 200 fly. Whereas this race was a once ripe opportunity for new swimmers to earn their spots on the national level, aspiring 200 butterfly specialists in the U.S. now have a much larger challenge to overcome — but not an impossible one.

For instance, at U.S. Nationals in late July, veteran Dakota Luther won the event in 2:07.02, with Lindsay Looney just behind in 2:07.25, both times quicker than Smith swam to qualify for the World Championships in the event. The third-place finisher at both last year’s Olympic Trials and this year’s International Team Trials was Charlotte Hook, an 18-year-old originally from North Carolina who is now a freshman at Stanford. Hook did not make a jump in long course this year from the 2:07.92 she swam at last year’s Olympic Trials, but she is certainly capable of such an improvement. Hook did win silver at the Short Course World Championships last December.

The FINA World Cup in Indianapolis last weekend threw two more teenage contenders into the mix. Katie Grimes, best known for her shocking qualification for the U.S. Olympic team in 2021 and now a World Championships silver medalist in the 1500 free and 400 IM, finished less than a second behind world champion Summer McIntosh in the race. Could she add the 200 fly to her program? Grimes already swims two of the most grueling events in swimming, so why not add a third?

Finishing third in the World Cup race was Alex Shackell, an Indiana native who clocked 2:05.18. Shackell finished four tenths ahead of Flickinger in the event after coming from behind to pass the 28-year-old who has long been known for her finishing speed. Shackell, a high school sophomore, won bronze in the 200 fly at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in 2:09.71. She also added gold in the 100 fly and three relay golds in Honolulu. It is very realistic that Shackell could rise to the level of national-level contender by the time the we reach the 2024 Olympic Trials — a meet scheduled to be held at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, short drive away from her home in Carmel, Ind.

Tess Howley, a future University of Virginia Cavalier who finished one spot and 0.15 behind Shackell at Junior Pan Pacs, has consistently recorded times in the 2:09-range this year, so she is another candidate to throw her name into the mix over the next few years. And there is still plenty of time for even younger swimmers to emerge onto the scene.

It’s likely that whatever Americans end up carrying the torch in the 200 fly in the immediate future will head to international meets as serious medal contenders, but winning a gold medal would buck a major trend. No American women has won a gold medal in the 200 fly at a World Championships or Olympics since Misty Hyman pulled off a stunning upset over Australian Susie O’Neill at the 2000 Olympics.

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