Nic Fink Better With Time After Becoming Olympian, World Champion in 2021

FINK Nic USA Gold Medal Men's 50m Breaststroke Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 21/12/21 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Nic Fink -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Nic Fink Better With Time After Becoming Olympian, World Champion in 2021

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Nic Fink, who graduated from the University of Georgia in 2015, had a successful collegiate career, but just missed making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. This past year at the age of 28, he added three key pieces to his résumé: a spot on an Olympic team, a breaststroke sweep at the ISL finals and six medals (four golds) at the recent Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi.

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For nearly a decade, Nic Fink has been one of the elite breaststrokers in the United States. During his four years at the University of Georgia, he topped out at second place at the NCAA Championships in the 100 yard breaststroke in 2014 and 2015. Fink qualified for his first World Championships team in 2013, and he has swum at the World Championships on two other occasions since. His best result was a fifth-place finish in the 200 meter breast in 2017.

Fink’s consistency and longevity have both been remarkable accomplishments, but 2021 was arguably the finest year of his career. His breakthrough came five years after Fink was one of the favorites to make the Rio Olympics in both the 100 and 200 breast, but he ended up swimming well off his best times to finish in seventh place in each event. That setback forced Fink to take a deep dive into his entire approach to swimming.

“I kind of had to rewire my brain and kind of reconfigure how I approach the sport,” Fink said. “I really desperately wanted to make the Olympic team in 2016, and I think I was like going into it thinking that if I didn’t make it, I was a failure, and if I made it, then I was a success. It’s not so black-and-white, not so cut-and-dried. I think by 2020, I was more comfortable with my swimming career as a whole, and I tried to frame it in my head as, ‘If I made the Olympic team, that would be icing on the cake, but if I didn’t, I still have a pretty good cake.’”

When the Tokyo Olympics were still scheduled for 2020, Fink began to feel as confident as ever as he was consistently swimming in-season best times. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic began and delayed the Games to 2021, Fink admittedly became anxious about trying to recapture that momentum, especially since he would be approaching his 28th birthday (July 3) by the time the rescheduled Trials rolled around (mid-June).

“It was definitely kind of a mental juggernaut, trying to convince myself that the year would be good and that the extra year would work for me, and I was definitely skeptical about trying to match that momentum and match the training I was doing before,” Fink said.

But during the spring of 2021, Fink was again moving toward his best form. He comfortably won both his signature events at the Mission Viejo TYR Pro Swim Series in April, his last spotlighted tune-up meet before Trials. In order to keep the pressure as light as possible, he kept the mindset of “putting equal stock in both and not putting all my eggs in the 200 basket.”


Overcoming Adversity at Olympic Trials

On the first day of Trials, he hit a best time by a significant margin in the 100 breast semifinals, a 58.50 that beat the American record from the start of the day. While Michael Andrew had twice lowered the record to become the odds-on favorite, Fink was a solid bet for second place and a spot in Tokyo.

However, in an extremely tight final, Fink ended up just on the outside. Andrew won in 58.73, one hundredth ahead of Andrew Wilson, while Fink finished in 58.80, leaving him in third place and a mere six hundredths off the Olympic team. To make matters more painful, his semifinal time would have won the race by more than two tenths!

“That was actually my second fastest time ever,” Fink said. “But yeah, that’s what it’s all about. Hats off to Wilson and MA because they showed up when they needed to, and that’s what you need to do to make an Olympic team and to do well at the Games. You have to show up when it counts. But that was definitely not a fun way to start the meet.”

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Nic Fink after qualifying for the 2021 U.S. Olympic team — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

So he had to wait three more days for his second and last chance. But this time, the race unfolded perfectly as Fink delivered the swim of his life. Following the advice of Jack Bauerle, his longtime coach at Georgia, Fink was patient through the first half of the race as he let others expend energy, and with 50 meters to go, he was in second place with the most left in the tank. His last split of 32.98 was more than a half-second faster than any other swimmer in the race, and he came into the wall in 2:07.55. That crushed Fink’s lifetime best by more than a half-second, and more importantly, he was seven tenths ahead of anyone else.

“I’m just happy that the 200 turned out to be my best time and good enough to make the team,” Fink said. “Jack told me to make sure that I waited for my moment in the 200, to not get caught up in the pageantry of it all and be too aggressive on the front half, which I think is what he saw in the 100. So, actually, at one point in the 200, I thought I was going to make my move, but then I was like, ‘Let me hold off. Let me wait a little bit longer.’ And as per usual, Jack turned out to be right.”

Waiting for Fink right after the race for a hug was his girlfriend, Melanie Margalis. Five years earlier, Margalis had qualified for the Rio Games with a second-place finish in the 200 IM and a fifth-place result in the 200 free, but this time, Margalis had narrowly missed out on the Olympics in both IM events, making for something of a role reversal.

“It’s funny because we have talked about how cool it would have been to be on an Olympic team together,” Fink said. “She made one in 2016, and I made one in 2021. It’s one of those things where maybe the timing didn’t work out. I was really happy for her in 2016, and she was really happy for me in 2021.”


First-Time Olympian and International Success

At age 28, Fink swam at his first Olympics, and he qualified for the final in the 200 breast, where he finished fifth in 2:07.93. “That’s one of the things that I’ll be happy to hang my hat on for a while,” Fink said of racing for the medals.

After that race, he stayed ready in case he was called upon for a leg in one of the medley relays at the end of the meet. He had accepted that he was there primarily for the 200 breast while being “more of a ‘break-glass-in-case-of-emergency’ type of 100 breaststroker.” Fink believed he could provide a competitive split, but the U.S. coaching staff went with the original qualifiers in the 100 breast, and Fink was supportive of that decision. It ended up working out for the Americans as the men’s medley relay won gold in world-record time.

“You ask any of us who are uber competitive elite athletes, ‘Oh, do you think you would do better?,’ the answer is always a 100% yes,” Fink said. “It’s part of my competitive nature to think, ‘Yeah, of course I would want to be on it and like to participate.’ But I was there to swim the 200 breast. I totally get why they made the decision they did, and it made sense to me.”

In the months after the Olympics, Fink shifted his competitive attention to short course meters, where he raced with the Cali Condors in the International Swimming League and then for the U.S. at the Short Course World Championships in December. That stretch of 25-meter racing turned out to be one of the most successful stretches of Fink’s career.

At the ISL final in early December, he upset the heavily-favored Ilya Shymanovich in all three breaststroke races. The wins were by a combined margin of merely 0.15, but the results were shocking, nonetheless.

Two weeks later, Fink won World Championship medals for the first time at the Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi — six of them, to be exact. That haul included gold medals in the 200 breast, an upset win over Olympic silver medalist Arno Kamminga, and the 50 breast, in another stunner over Shymanovich, this time by just two hundredths. Fink also helped the Americans win three medley relay medals, including two golds, and he took bronze in the 100 breast.


A New Phase of Life

Fink achieved all of that success after moving into a new phase of his life, one where swimming would sometimes take a back seat. In the fall of 2021, he began a master’s program in electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech, so he and Margalis left their longtime training base in Athens after a decade and moved to Atlanta. They began training with the Georgia Tech college team after Georgia assistant coach and former Georgia Tech assistant coach Neil Versfeld connected Fink and Margalis with current Yellow Jackets assistant Mike Norment.

“I went into swimming in Atlanta, training with Mike and the Georgia Tech team, and I let him know pretty early that, ‘Hey, my priority is not just swimming. I’m doing school. I’m doing swimming. I want to balance both, so I’m just not going to be as intense as I was the last quad. If you can help me with that, that’d be great,’” Fink said. “And they’ve been more than willing.”

FINK Nic USA gold medal Swimming Mens' 200m breaststroke final Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 18/12/21 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Giorgio Perottino / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Nic Fink racing at the 2021 Short Course World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Perottino / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

At Georgia Tech, Fink has focused more on speed work and technique work after years of building his aerobic capacity under Bauerle, and Fink believes those little tweaks made a difference in short course racing, which rewards details. Meanwhile, he has chosen systems and controls, then digital systems processing as his two areas of focus in his demanding graduate program.

So how has he pulled off the balancing act between swimming and school? First, knowing his upcoming travel schedule, he strategically chose classes for the fall semester where the professors would record lectures and post them online so he could watch later.

“I let them know ahead of time that, ‘Hey, I may not be in class for, you know, three weeks because I’ll be in Eindhoven. Is that OK?’ They’re like, ‘No, it’s not OK, but you can do it,’” Fink said. “I think for the most part, they’re OK as long as I don’t miss tests.”

And somehow, despite spending almost all of November in Eindhoven for the ISL playoffs, Fink did not miss a single test while traveling (although he did have to schedule a makeup test so he could compete at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Westmont, Ill., in early March).

His successful ISL final performance came on the heels of a week filled with homework and projects, and in the 11 days between the ISL final and Short Course Worlds, he actually flew home to take all his final exams before again crossing the Atlantic to get to Abu Dhabi.

“I was just kind of all over the place and going in thinking, ‘I’m gonna do the best I can, and whatever happens happens,’” Fink said. “And then I ended up swimming so well. It was a surprise to me, too. I can’t really say that’s what I was anticipating out of this year, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m definitely looking forward to World Champ Trials.”

Right now, Fink is approaching his swimming career on an “every-six-months” basis, meaning he will reconsider after each championship meet whether he wants to keep going. He admitted that he was concerned for the brief period when it looked like there would be no long course World Championships in 2022. “Mentally, it took a lot to go to practice those couple of weeks while things were still getting figured out,” he said.

He will finish his graduate program in December 2022, and he’s not exactly sure what jobs he will pursue once he has that degree in hand. The focus is in the present, even as he admits that at some point in the not-too-distant future, his priorities will shift toward his career away from the pool.

“I’m trying to keep short-term goals and not really think about the long-term, and really focus on what else I want to do besides swimming, which has been working toward this degree. Then after that, I don’t know if Mel and I really have a concrete plan. I just assume that life’s going to start happening. It’s going to be fun building that, too. I’m not dreading the day that swimming is over, but still having fun with it and still keeping it going,” Fink said.

“In my opinion, we have accomplished enough that we can walk away from the sport whenever we want to and have left nothing behind.”

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