ARLINGTON, Va. — Torri Huske is a young woman in a hurry. It makes sense; she is a swimmer, one of the bright young stars of the U.S. Olympic team, a biracial athlete in a predominantly white sport, so fast that she didn’t break the American record in the 100-meter butterfly just once at last month’s swimming trials, she did it twice.
“Fly and die,” she calls her strategy, meaning she goes all out in the first 50 meters, and hopes she has enough left for the last 50. It’s actually part game plan, part hope — the machinations of the imaginative mind of an 18-year-old who just graduated from high school and is headed to Stanford, one of 11 teenagers who will burst into prominence on the U.S. swimming team at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
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Minutes before Huske — the only child of a Chinese-American immigrant mother and an American father — was about to introduce herself to the sports world in the biggest way possible, by setting her initial American record on the first night of her first U.S. Olympic trials, she was in a very different kind of hurry.
As her fellow semifinalists in the 100 butterfly trudged purposely to the pool deck in Omaha, Nebraska, Huske burst through the line to get to her lane as quickly as she could. It wasn’t rude. It was just, well, fast.
She pulled off her shoes and her sweats and tossed them into a basket by the starting blocks before most of her competitors had even made it to their lane. It had to be another American record, this one for shedding warmups to reveal a swimsuit.
What’s the rush?
“People are like, ‘You take off your clothes so fast,’” Huske said in an interview a few days later back home in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. “I get anxious when I have my clothes on behind the blocks because I want to have time to stretch out a little bit. I move so quickly because I want to stretch and focus.
“If I’m taking off my clothes more slowly, it’s another thing to worry about so I try to do it as fast as possible. I just like standing in the blocks and getting in the mindset. I’m kind of calming myself down but also hyping myself up at the same time in my head. I don’t know if that makes sense but yeah, that’s what I’m doing.”
Her longtime coach, Evan Stiles of the Arlington Aquatic Club, was watching in the stands as his star pupil tore up to the starting blocks, foreshadowing what was to come when she actually hit the water.
“She just wanted to get up there and race,” he said. “She didn’t follow the order. You have to want it. You have to be confident. You just don’t want to be the norm. That is her.”
So is this: Less than a minute after Huske and the other seven women in her semifinal dove into the Olympic trials pool, she touched the wall in a new U.S. record time of 55.78 seconds, breaking Dana Vollmer’s mark of 55.98 seconds, which she set while winning the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Huske’s splits? The first 50 was a swift 25.96 seconds. The second 50 was 29.82. Time for a new slogan? Fly — and thrive?
The next evening was the final in the 100 fly. This time, Huske didn’t charge onto the pool deck as an understudy; she arrived as the star, the American record-holder, the favorite. That’s a lot for a young swimmer to digest.
“I was so focused on the finals that I kind of dismissed the American record the night before,” Huske said, “because it doesn’t matter if you set the American record and then you don’t make the team. I knew that was still a possibility because the girls there are so fast and it’s just so competitive.”
So what happened? She swam the first 50 in a scorching 25.65 seconds. She swam the second 50 in 30.01. Add it up, the fastest time in the world this year, another American record, breaking her own from 24 hours earlier: 55.66 seconds, just .18 of a second behind the world record of Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, set while winning the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Finding a pool to train in during the pandemic
Huske had made the Olympic team. As she soaked up the applause of the crowd, as she accepted her medal and met with the press, it all seemed so far removed from just 15 months earlier, when the then-high school junior was just trying to find a pool to swim in as the pandemic hit and the world shut down in March 2020.
In early April 2020, Torri’s father Jim got in touch with a pool company that knew about a recently-opened backyard pool in Gainesville, Virginia, nearly an hour drive from the Huskes’ Arlington home. It was an oval pool, 42 feet long, very short by an elite swimmer’s standards, so Torri attached a bungee-style cord to a belt around her waist and swam in place as Stiles or her father held tight to the end of the cord on the pool deck behind her.
“She did that for six weeks,” Jim Huske said.
The man who owned that pool also owned a drone. He knew a neighbor had a bigger pool, but wasn’t sure if it was open yet. So he flew his drone over the neighborhood and indeed spotted water in that bigger pool. He drove to the neighbor’s home, explained that a prospective Olympian needed more space to train, and soon Torri was swimming in a 55-foot pool.
“I was freaking out when all the pools first closed,” she said, “but when the Olympics were postponed and I knew we had another year, it was a relief. I knew that time would be beneficial to me.”
The time to train during the pandemic helped young swimmers like Huske mature and get stronger. But to say she definitely would not have made the Olympic team had the Games been held in 2020 would not be accurate, Stiles said. She won the 100 butterfly at the U.S. Open in December 2019, so she definitely already was on her way.
A normal little kid who worked hard
Jim and Ying Huske should have known their daughter was going to be a swimmer. Two days before Torri was born on Dec. 7, 2002, Ying swam a mile. “I was swimming just to stay in shape during my pregnancy,” she said. “I was so big that day. Torri was definitely swimming with me.”
Jim and Ying met several years earlier in an AOL chat room, she a transportation engineer, he a government worker.
Ying was born and raised in Guangzhou, China, where her parents worked at a local university. When she was seven, Ying and her family were relocated to the remote countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where Ying’s job was to fetch water from the river for her family.
When Ying and her family returned to Guangzhou, she went to college at 16, became an architect, then eventually followed her brother to the United States, first going to Ohio State, then Virginia Tech. She now works in IT for the Navy. Jim, a native of the Chicago suburbs, is a consultant.
The Huskes introduced Torri to a variety of sports as a child. At first, she didn’t fall in love with swimming. If she wasn’t known for her speed back then, she definitely was known for her early swimming attire.
“I would wear a wetsuit to practice when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Torri said. “I definitely looked really dumb. I was just really cold all the time. Not many people do that because it’s not really what you’re supposed to do. I remember my first swim meet, I tried wearing my wetsuit and they were like, ‘You can’t do that,’ and they made me change.”
Torri was most definitely not a prodigy as a child. “She wasn’t the fastest kid on the team,” Stiles said. “She was just a normal little kid that got into swimming that worked hard and developed through our program. It wasn’t like she did massive amounts of yards. She swam three times a week for an hour.”
Jim Huske sees this as a blessing for a young athlete. “She was never phenomenal as a kid,” he said. “She learned how to lose at a young age.”
It wasn’t long before that changed and the swimming world started taking notice of the young water bug who had grown to 5-8 and was doing everything quickly. Just five months ago, for instance, swimming for Yorktown High, she broke not one but two national high school records at the Virginia Class 6 state championship. Those races were just 25 minutes apart.
So there she was last month in Omaha at the trials, having made the Olympic team on the second night of the week-long meet, with many events ahead of her, all of them opportunities to qualify for more races in Tokyo. She came close in the 50 freestyle (third) and 200 individual medley (fourth), but failed to make it in another individual event.
“It was really hard after I made the team in the 100 fly,” she said. “I was trying to not get too emotionally up just because it would be really hard the next morning. You kind of get deflated after the relief and the excitement of making the team.”
Huske, an old soul who paints in acrylics and does origami in her spare time, prides herself on controlling her emotions. “I try not to get too up or too down,” she said. “I really try to tame my emotions, to control them.”
But the pressure of the U.S. Olympic trials is like nothing else, even the Olympic Games themselves.
“I put my phone on Do Not Disturb during the meet because it was just too much,” she said. “After my 100 fly final, after I made the team, I had probably over 300 messages and I was just like, ‘I can’t do this right now.’ I just put my phone away. I Facetimed a few of my friends but for the most part I just put my phone away because it was too overwhelming.”
Even though the 100 butterfly, in which she will be favored to win a medal, is her only individual event in Tokyo, Huske is expected to be on the U.S. women’s 4×100 medley relay team, which will be favored to win the gold medal, and could be added to the U.S. teams for the mixed medley relay and the women’s 4×100 freestyle relay.
Those decisions will come soon enough. As the hours tick away and the Games approach, there’s no way to know for certain how Torri Huske will do in the pool. But we do know who will be the first swimmer standing at her lane, warmups off and game face on, ready to race.