Felipe Baffico Balharry had a month to prepare for the biggest swims of his life.
Baffico Balharry, a rising senior at The Out-of-Door Academy whose family moved to Lakewood Ranch from Chile when he was 10, received a phone call from Chile's national team swim coaches. They told him they had two open spots on the team's roster for the 2022 FINA World Championships, held June 18-July 3 in Budapest, Hungary.
Baffico Balharry accepted, of course. This was a chance to swim against the best athletes on Earth. Who would turn down such an opportunity, even with little time to prepare?
There was one problem, though. Baffico Balharry was already planning on representing Chile in the FINA World Junior Championships in Lima, Peru, Aug. 30-Sept. 4. He had known about those junior championships for a long time and had shaped his summer training schedule around it. The World Championships was a swerve in those plans.
It was a good swerve, but also one that had to come with lower expectations. He would simply do the best he could.
Oh, and he also was going to have fun.
That became easy once he dove into the Budapest pool for the first time and saw 2020 U.S. Olympians Kieran Smith and Nic Fink swimming next to him.
It was just a tad different than swimming for ODA or his club team, the Sarasota Sharks.
"I was definitely nervous," Baffico Balharry said. "There are so many people there. Thinking about the 200 meter butterfly, in particular, gave me butterflies — no pun intended. It's my best event and it is something you have to plan for. It is not a full sprint. So the night before, thinking about that swim, that was stressful."
Once Baffico Balharry arrived to the call room, a funny thing happened. His nerves disappeared. He realized the only thing he could do was compete. Stepping onto the pool deck, Baffico Balharry allowed himself the briefest of glances around Budapest's Duna Arena. He took in the moment and enjoyed it.
Then he reminded himself not to go too fast out of the blocks. It was self advice he promptly forgot as soon as he hit the water.
It happens to the best of us. We enter something with a plan and promptly throw it out. In Baffico Balharry's case, it still worked out OK. He set a new personal record in the 200 meter butterfly, finishing in 2:01.99, good for 34th place. When you're going against elite swimmers as a high schooler, 34th is pretty dang good. Baffico Balharry also finished 48th in the 100 meter butterfly (55.32 seconds).
"I was talking with (Sarasota Sharks) Coach Brent Arckey, and he told me that for me to set a new PR on a big stage like that, that was a nice result," Baffico Balharry said. "That made me feel good about the whole thing. I'm happy with how I performed considering I only knew about it a month beforehand."
Baffico Balharry said he had three days on his own once he arrived in Budapest, but in order to rest his body, he didn't explore the city much. He did have one day after his events to see the city, though, and elected to take a boat tour with a few friends which hit all the city's landmarks. It wasn't as much time as he would have liked, he said, but Budapest looked beautiful all the same.
Budapest was just one part of a whirlwind nine months for Baffico Balharry, who competed in his first international event, the South American Youth Championships, in November 2021 in Lima, Peru, and took gold in the 200 meter butterfly (2:02.09).
It was held at the same venue that will host the FINA World Junior Championships in August. Baffico Balharry said he did not think he would back back in Lima so soon, but believes the familiarity with the venue and the area will help him perform his best and shake off some nerves. It will also help that he can finally complete his training plan. He's still going full-speed for now, with the 2022 USA Futures Swimming Championships set for July 27-30 in Greensboro, North Carolina. After that event, he said, a smaller group of Sharks will continue their training for the Junior Championships, slowly tapering down their training for maximum energy.
Baffico Balharry said he would like to make the finals in the 200 meter butterfly at World Juniors, which will likely require a sub-2:00 time. Baffico Balharry will have to shave at least two seconds off his personal record for that to happen. That is a significant amount of time in swimming, but then again, he set his personal record while relatively unprepared. If he listens to his coaches' race plan, there's no telling how much time he could shave off.
After that, who knows? He will swim for the Sharks and for ODA in the fall. As far as other international opportunities, he is certainly open to them. But no matter what happens from here, he's swam in the same pool as the world's best and done well, and that's something worthy of pride.