Until Huske finished the rest of the sentence: “… that I’m not nervous.”
And with that, Stiles laughed and understood what Huske, the 18-year-old phenom from Arlington, seemed to be implying: She was almost eerily calm and confident — primed in every way to deliver the performance of her life at these U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
On Monday night at CHI Health Center Arena, in the final of the women’s 100-meter butterfly, Huske did just that, winning the race in 55.66 seconds and securing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Games next month. Her time was an American record, breaking the one she had set the night before in the semifinals, the fastest in the world in 2021 and the third fastest of all time.
In less than a minute, Huske had gone from a relative unknown outside the insular world of swimming to a legitimate gold medal threat in the Olympics.
After touching the wall, Huske stared at the scoreboard and broke into a huge, toothy smile, then reached across the lane line to congratulate her chief rival, 16-year-old Claire Curzan, who finished second and will join Huske in Tokyo representing Team USA.
“It doesn’t even feel real,” Huske said moments after the race. “... It hasn’t even sunk in I’m at Olympic trials. So, yeah, it’s really crazy.”
And Monday’s swim was only the first blast in what could wind up being an epic week for Huske (pronounced “HUSK”), with swims still to come in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyles and the 200-meter individual medley. (She also qualified for the trials in the 200-meter butterfly, but she is likely to scratch that race to focus on the others.)
Huske, a graduating senior at Yorktown High headed to Stanford University in the fall, is often mentioned — along with Curzan — as one of the U.S. teenagers who benefited from the one-year delay of the Tokyo Games and U.S. trials, which gave her 12 more months to add strength and build speed. Those in her inner circle don’t dispute that characterization.
“Do I think she could have gone [to Tokyo] last year? Yes. I think she had a shot,” said Jim Huske, Torri’s father. “But her shot was going to be significantly better this year.”
By the end of 2019, Huske was already on an Olympian trajectory, winning five gold medals at the 2019 World Junior Championships in Budapest, winning the 100 fly and 100 free at the 2019 U.S. Open and setting national age group records for age 17-18 in the 50 free and 100 fly (the latter of which, belonging to Mary T. Meagher, had stood for 38 years). But she had had almost no weight training by that point, and she needed to get bigger and stronger to take the next step.
The one-year delay of the Olympics, Huske said Monday night, “in a way was a blessing. … I definitely would not have done as well [in Omaha] without it.” The extra strength training, she said, made a major difference in her closing 50, with fast swimmers on both sides of her trying to beat her to the wall.
Huske was always a small child, so skinny as an elementary-schooler that her parents, Jim and Ying, outfitted her in a wet suit for swim practices so she wouldn’t shiver so much. At 12, she was still just 4-foot-9 and weighed just 87 pounds. Even now, at 18, she is small for an elite swimmer — just 5-8. (The swimmers who represented the United States in the 100 fly in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Dana Vollmer and Kelsi Dahlia, are 6-1 and 5-11.)
In March 2020, when the world shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, Team Torri, with access to pools cut off indefinitely, decided to use the time to supercharge the weight and aerobic training regime Huske had just started in November 2019.
Her typical morning routine: 45 minutes on the rowing machine, 45 minutes on the stationary bike, then a weightlifting session with strength coach Torey Ortmayer (who doubles as Huske’s swim coach at Yorktown). She would do another 45 minutes of rowing and another 45 minutes of biking in the afternoon, and most days Jim would take her to a series of hills in the neighborhood, where Torri would sprint up and down the hills for another hour or so.
“Everybody in the neighborhood knows who she is, because they’d see this girl sprinting up the hills day after day,” Jim said. “… She’s had a year and a half now of strength training, and it’s closed the gap. Nobody worked harder than her when covid hit.”
By the time the weather warmed up, most full-sized pools in the area were still closed, so the first pools where Huske resumed training were outdoors in people’s backyards — first a 42-footer, where Stiles would tie a cord to her waist and pull on the other end as she swam in place, then a 55-footer that was at least big enough to approximate real swimming.
“Instead of stroke-flip, stroke-flip, stroke-flip,” Stiles said, “it was stroke-stroke-stroke-stroke-stroke-flip.”
The first competition pool to agree to let Huske train there, in July 2020, was Dowden Terrace in Alexandria, a 25-meter outdoor pool, and she and Stiles wasted no time in ramping up her training to her old yardage and beyond. By her second day there, she was swimming 11,000 to 12,000 meters per day. Eventually, they found some Olympic-size, 50-meter pools willing to host her for training. But it was mostly a solitary existence: no Arlington Aquatic Club teammates. Just Stiles on the deck and Huske in the water, staring at those black lines on the bottom of the pool.
School was another consideration. With the Tokyo Games pushed to 2021, and with the 2020-21 school year being conducted virtually, Huske enrolled in the Virtual Virginia learning program for her senior year, allowing her to proceed at her own pace — which turned out, naturally, to be that of a world-class sprinter. She finished her school year in early March, earning all A’s in her six courses (five of them Advanced Placement) and allowing her to focus the rest of this spring on swimming — which came in handy given the patchwork schedule at various local pools.
It hasn’t been much of a senior year in the traditional sense. There was no senior prom at Yorktown, and the school will hold its graduation on the football field on Friday — the same day Huske, halfway across the country, will presumably swim the final of the 100 free.
The closest thing she got to closure was an unofficial party the kids called “Prom-ish” on the first Saturday in June. They all drove out to the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial to pose for pictures in their formal wear. There was a huge party with a DJ. Huske, mindful of the risk of contracting the coronavirus with all she had riding on this summer, wore a mask despite having been vaccinated. Four days later, she flew to Omaha.
Like many kids her age, Huske, because of the pandemic, missed out on some of the most cherished experiences of high school. But unlike many others, she has something to look forward to that might compensate.
If the lead-up to her first Olympic trials didn’t overwhelm her, the aftermath of her first final almost did. At the medal ceremony, she stood on a sunken podium that rose up out of the floor. Someone draped a gold medal around her neck and handed her flowers. The crowd roared, and Huske gave the sheepish wave of an embarrassed teenager.
“I’m Torri Huske,” she said moments later into a camera on the pool deck, prompted by the arena emcee to repeat the catchphrase each winner in Omaha recites, her beaming face and giggly voice projected on the video board and piping out of the speakers, “and I’m a Tokyo Olympian.”