In one week in June in Omaha, Torri Huske swam five events, broke a record in the 100-meter butterfly, turned into a trending search on Google and became the first breakout star of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
“Afterwards a lot of people asked me, ‘Were you able to sleep?’ — blah, blah, blah,” the 18-year-old recalled the following week during an interview at her Arlington home.
Sure, her achievements excited her, but she pointed out that she had just finished an Olympic qualifying race, after which she narrated her life story to a group of reporters. She was exhausted. She slept fine.
Huske’s U.S. record time of 55.66 seconds at the trials is the fastest in the world this season, giving her a legitimate chance to become the youngest gold medal winner in the 100-meter butterfly since 1980.
She also has a knack for surprising people outside the pool — by winding down so effortlessly from a life-changing achievement, for instance.
“She’s like that,” said her coach, Evan Stiles. “I will say, at the pool, she was really giddy, no doubt. Super excited, smiling, the way I would hope that you would want to be. But I honestly think she went home, ate something and went to bed. That’s just how she is. How she does it, I have no idea.”
An American Dream
Huske’s mother, Ying, grew up in Guangzhou, China, just northwest of Hong Kong, as Mao Zedong and the Communist Party were rising to power. When Ying was 7 and the Cultural Revolution began, she was relocated to the rural countryside, where her job was to carry water for her family.
China’s higher-education system remained closed for a decade, and when it reopened, Ying was 16, and nobody in China during that time had attended college. When she applied to school, her competition ranged from teenagers to 30-somethings.
Schooling was her ticket to the United States. She studied architecture in China, urban planning for one semester at Ohio State and then civil engineering at Virginia Tech before working in IT for the U.S. Navy.
She watched from the seats in Omaha as her daughter made Team USA. “I feel like I’m living out my American Dream,” Ying said.
She knew “barely” any English when she arrived, but she adjusted well. Her poise would set the tone for the rest of her life and eventually her daughter’s.
“When you come over and you start your whole life over and you don’t have a lot to start with,” said her husband, Jim, “nothing rattles you.”
In turn, nothing rattled Torri. She, her dad and her coach explained that she was not an elite swimmer when she started, especially by the standards of the D.C. area.
In December 2019, when Huske outraced Kelsi Dahlia for the winter national championship in the 100-meter butterfly, she knew she was good enough to compete in Tokyo.
Her own path
With a performance such as Huske’s last month, the Olympics can seem like an inevitability. But at almost every opportunity, Huske refused the road toward athletic prodigy and opted instead for down-to-earth teenager. She reached the grandest stage in sports because of those decisions, not despite them.
Arlington Aquatic Club has trained successful swimmers over the years, but in Omaha, Huske was the only AAC representative in the second and more competitive wave. (Nation’s Capital Swim Club, where Katie Ledecky trained, had nine.) At Yorktown High in Arlington, the swim team was often competitive but only became a monster during Huske’s four years, finishing in the top two in the state three times.
When Huske had opportunities to move her training this spring as she struggled to find long-course pools in the D.C. area because of pandemic restrictions, she declined to relocate because it would have meant leaving her family, friends and coaches.
She talks about these decisions as if they are no-brainers. Youth sports often send families looking for greener pastures. Not the Huskes. Asked to explain all of this, Huske has a simple answer to a complicated question. “I think it made me a lot happier,” she said.
Her experience over the past few months crystallizes that sentiment. During training, she developed a friendship with Mackenzie McConagha, a state champion from nearby Briar Woods High. She kept working with Stiles, her coach for the past four years. And when she arrived home from Omaha last month, her longtime friends had decorated her house, both inside and out.
In the end, her hometown, her home school and her home pool offered stability no other option could match.
When she had a day off, she almost always spent it with friends. Her father pointed out that many of her friends were accomplished teenagers in their own right: an incoming theater student at New York University, a certified paramedic, a gifted singer who spoke at the school’s commencement ceremony. “Torri realizes, ‘Okay, I’m special, but I’m no more special than them — they’re just special in something different,’ ” Jim Huske said.
The support system Huske built over the years held up to the toughest test of her training. Weeks before the trials, days before she was set to limit her workload and start tapering, Huske hit a wall. “I had been working for so long, and at that point I was like, ‘I really just want a break,’ ” she said.
She asked Stiles for a breather, but he couldn’t allow one. They reached a compromise: Stiles would let Huske start tapering one day early.
“Obviously it worked,” Stiles said. “She swam great.”
A new role model
Wayne Herninko has an especially prescient story about Huske. Herninko was Huske’s gym teacher at Glebe Elementary. When it was time for his third-graders to practice their push-ups, most kids maxed out around a half-dozen. Huske made it to 10, then 20, then 30.
By that point, the rest of the class had huddled around her, clapping and cheering. Huske did 40 push-ups and then stopped. Afterward, Herninko overheard Huske telling a friend, “I probably could have done more, but it was kind of embarrassing.”
The crowd multiplied, and the stage grew. But the scene at the Olympic trials played out the same way: Huske never succumbed to the pressure or the fame building around her.
When she returned from Omaha, Huske resumed her strength training with Torey Ortmayer, her high school coach. She often ran hills in her neighborhood, and during breaks, the two of them spent time in conversation.
Initially, Huske peppered Ortmayer with questions about his reaction to her victory: How did you feel? Did you cry? Did the win validate your teaching?
The day before she left for U.S. Olympic training camp in Hawaii, Huske stood atop a hill and asked one more question: “Do you think kids look up to me now?”
Ortmayer paused and gave Huske the answer everyone around her knew but she hadn’t realized: Yes, he said, of course kids look up to her. In fact, just that week, an 8-year-old had told Ortmayer she wanted to swim like Huske one day.
“The realness of it all, I think, is profound,” Ortmayer said. “For someone who has felt at times overlooked or didn’t read into her own success … the realization [was] for as humble a person as you are, this is even bigger than that.”
When she heard all of this, Huske let a smile stretch across her face. Then it faded away, and she ran back down the hill to start again.
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