Breaststroker Nic Fink: Team USA’s 28-year-old rookie a grand ‘old man’ in the pool

Nic Fink spoke exclusively to Tokyo 2020 about why he thinks the breaststroke is an old-man’s game, how he takes strength from (and finds refreshing empathy in) past disappointments in the pool and why, ahead of his Olympic debut, gold is always expected of USA swimmers.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

“The breaststroke is an old man’s stroke,” said 28-year-old Nic Fink, old only by the oft-times topsy-turvy arithmetic of elite Olympic competition – in this case, swimming. “It’s one of those strokes that, early on, you can either do it or you can’t.”

Fink could.

He didn’t fall in love with swimming from the start – pointing out the obvious impediments for a young kid: “cold water; early mornings.” But he did warm to the breaststroke early on in the pool. Since then, he’s only improved with age.

“A lot of it has to do with feel and how you feel the water,” added Fink, who, though an Olympic rookie at age 28, is a member of the oldest event team among the USA swimmers in Tokyo. “Especially in the 100m, you see a lot of guys who can do it well into their 30s and you don’t see that for a lot of other strokes.

READ | A Tale of Fink and Finke | TEAM USA Swim Team Set

“Experience goes a long way in the breaststroke,” added Fink, a New Jersey native who followed his sister, older by one year, into the water. He was, by his own admission, a late bloomer and he didn’t really hit his stride until his last year at the University of Georgia, when he finished second in the nation in the 100m and fourth in the 200.

Experienced doesn’t mean slow

In the world of athletic pursuits, words like experienced and veteran, or seasoned, can be backhanded compliments. Sure, these qualities stand for something, but they’re also code for slower than you once were. This is not the case with Fink, or his USA teammate in the 200m in Tokyo, Andrew Wilson -- one year his junior at 27.

Fink's got the sixth fastest time in the world in 2021 in the 200m – the event he will compete in at the Tokyo Games. And he’s still got room in there to shave off those slivers of seconds that make the difference between podiums and regrets in the rarefied Olympic air.

Between Fink and the world’s best time this year, set by Australaian Zac Stubbtley-Cook, is a bit over one second.

And Fink knows, better than most, about the cruelty of those margins. In the ultra-competitive U.S. Olympic Team Swim Trials in Omaha, Nebraska this June, he was tipped to take the 100m breast and qualify for Tokyo in both the individual breaststroke distances. But when he touched the wall in the 100m finals, the number next to his name on the electronic board was 3 – and only two booked tickets to Tokyo.

Being caught on the outside looking in by such an agonisingly thin amount of sub-seconds might have ruined a man with lesser grit, or, sure, one of a younger age.

“I threw myself a pity party for about an hour and a half and then it was business as usual,” insisted Fink, who was out-touched by six hundredths of a second by Wilson.

What is that, really? A fingernail clipping. A hair’s breadth? It’s less time than it takes to blink. It’s maddening to consider. But Fink didn’t fall apart after having missed by that little. He didn’t feel cursed because he’d had nothing but misery up to that point at the U.S. Swim Trials. This was his first race back at the meet since five years before when he arrived as one of the odds-on favourites in the same two races only to finish seventh in both and miss out on the Rio 2016 Games.

Plowing disappointment into drive

Fink found the bright side. He leaned on his experience and found that silver lining cockeyed optimists all like to talk about on cloudy days.

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Picture by 2021 Getty Images

“In 2016, finishing the way I did after being seeded in the top-two, I couldn't even walk out of there with my head held high,” he admitted after being denied by one of the closest one-two-three finishes in U.S. Trials history. “But I learned what I could from the race [the third-place finish in Nebraska] and, really, I got my second fastest time ever [in that race], my second time under 59 [seconds]. It’s definitely a bummer to get out-touched by something you couldn’t even see, but I was where I wanted to be and I just got out-touched. It happens.

“That’s why I didn’t go into panic mode for the 200 and the wheels didn’t come off,” said Fink, who had only 48 hours between the loss in the 100 and his last chance to qualify for Tokyo 2020 (in the 200m) and reach his first Olympics. “It actually kind of gave me some confidence going into the 200.”

Fink flies in the 200m 

Fink admits to not feeling great in the preliminary rounds of the 200 in Nebraska, perhaps still “swimming out the 100.” But he knew he was fast enough going into the final. “If anyone was going to out-touch me, they were going to have to be going pretty fast,” he said. “I just knew things were going to click for that race.”

And click they did.

Fink finished first with a time of 2:07.55, almost a second ahead of that man Wilson, the very same who edged him in the 100. “I’m just so stoked for Nic,” Wilson said after the race, an indication of the esteem Fink is held in by his peers. “No one deserves this more and I’m just over the moon for him.”

His dream a sudden reality, after more than his share of heartache, Fink took a minute for himself. He just bobbed there between the lanes like a buoy. He didn’t slap at the water with his long arms, or flex his muscles like so many do. He didn’t throw something at the TV camera, like he thought he might.

“I envisioned being a lot more excited,” said the man who’s been chasing an Olympic place since it became a spark of a reality for him in 2013 with a second-place finish in the 100 at that year’s U.S. Nationals. “But it was more relief. A wave of relief just kind of came over me. I just let the moment sink in.”

And just after that private moment, the pure and essential quality of age and experience, when earned with a pure heart, bubbled to the surface. Fink made sure he went to those he out-touched – his “teammates” he’s sure to call them – to offer his congratulations on a great race and his condolences on coming so close.

Torn between celebration and compassion

“I was in that third [place] two nights before and it wasn’t fun,” said Fink. “I wanted to say ‘good race’ to those guys who went out there and tried their best. My heart was kind of split between those guys, who you’ve trained with and competed with for years, and getting out of the pool and realising that I’m an Olympian."

And Fink is an Olympian now. It’s official, even if at the relatively advanced age of 28. But that doesn't mean it’s fully sunken in for him yet.

“Little by little it’s feeling more real,” he said about the sudden shock of being an Olympic athlete. “They [Team USA officials] come to you and say ‘hey, we want the Olympians to sign this cap,’ and it’s like ‘hey, that’s me now.’ Sometimes it’s just like, 'wow, we’re really doing it'.”

Gratitude, empathy, experience, wonder – they all seem rolled up in this swimmer Fink as he sets his sights on the Olympic Games. But it’s worth considering, now, he’s not in Tokyo as a passenger, just happy to be along for the ride.

He’s not at these Games to make up the numbers.

“If you know the history of the sport of swimming, you know that if you’re representing the U.S., you have a chance for gold,” concluded Fink, ever-affable on land but steely in the pool when it matters. “We want other teams to be scared of us and, while I’m not the most intimidating person, having that flag on my cap means a lot. I’m here to help keep that tradition going.”

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