Though she has been a lifelong swimmer, Torri Huske never dreamed as a kid that she would go to the Olympics.
In fact, she doesn’t even remember the race when she first made an Olympic trials-qualifying time three years ago.
But winning the 100-meter butterfly at Winter Nationals in 2019 was “the first time I considered that I had the chance to qualify and compete,” she told ARLnow.
From then until this June, she focused on making the Olympic trials, repeating a mantra that “everything will take care of itself.”
And it did.
An 18-year-old Yorktown High School graduate and a lifelong member of the Arlington Aquatic Club (AAC), Huske represented the U.S. in three races in the recently-concluded summer Olympics in Tokyo. She and her team earned a silver medal in the women’s relay, she narrowly missed the podium in the 100-meter butterfly, and her mixed medley team came in fifth.
“I’m really happy, looking back on the experience. It was a fun time and I learned a lot,” she said.
Huske recalls exploring the Olympic Village and seeing the U.S. flag flying and hanging out in her room, where she played Uno with her suitemates during their downtime.
“The village was really cool,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to go outside it, but I got to know my roommates and suitemates really well.”
Even the coronavirus-related changes did not feel strange, she said. She slept no differently on the cardboard beds, and the camaraderie in the village kept the swimmers afloat during the races.
“It was weird with no spectators, but our team did a good job creating energy by cheering and having positive energy overall,” she said.
She returned to Arlington one week ago to a hero’s welcome. This week, she’s at the beach, taking her mind off swimming before she heads off to college.
“I’ve been working so hard for so long that I need a mental break — more than physically — to be excited to work again. Otherwise, I’ll be burnt out again,” she said.
But the races will keep her motivated while she swims for Stanford University.
“I’m grateful for all my races,” she said, even the new, co-ed mixed medley race, which “was hard for me to move on from.”
One specific technical change Huske said she’ll make is improving her ability to judge her distance from the wall, a lesson she learned from her 100-meter butterfly. Other than that, her body just has to absorb this competition experience into its muscle memory for future races.
“The more you race, the better you are, and the more you know what to do,” she said.
At the Olympic level, her AAC coach Evan Stiles explains, something as small as a last-second decision to glide for a few extra milliseconds instead of taking another stroke can affect a swimmer’s rank.
“She was ahead of the world record pace, and it was amazing, and just at the end, she faded,” he said.
Stiles said he hopes his former protégé will look back on that race in seven years, and say, “the 100 fly in 2021 is the reason I’ve been successful.”
A small mistake could haunt an athlete, but Stiles said Huske is mentally tough. After about 24 hours of disappointment, he heard his pupil start talking about winning the world swimming championships and preparing for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“That tells me, right there, she’s focused on her next thing she has to do,” he said.
Stiles said “everyone swam well” and “the U.S. didn’t have a lot of options.”
“Hearing her name and seeing her at Trials and the Olympics was unforgettable — seeing her stand between Ryan Murphy and Caleb Dressel before the mixed 4×100 medley relay was something out of a movie,” Ortmayer said.
The women’s relay, however, was “such a great race,” Stiles said.
“They would’ve broken an Olympic record if they won — they swam faster than anyone else, other than the people who won,” he added.
Stiles is also proud of Huske for staying with the Arlington Aquatic Club, a program administered by the county’s parks and recreation department, where he coaches high school students.
At AAC, practices are added “here and there” as athletes move up the ranks, since Stiles wants to avoid kids burning out.
“The way we have our time designed is to do exactly what Torri did,” he said.
Stiles has had north of 200 swimmers reach a junior national level, including 40 students who made it to a national level and three who made it to the Olympic trials. But Huske was the first swimmer he has coached to make the USA Swimming National Team and get to the Olympics.
“She’s the highest caliber kid I’ve ever had,” he said. “I think she’s going to get even better from where she is right now. I’m just one little step along the way here.”
Huske credits her success to Stiles, Ortmayer, and the unusual circumstances forced by the pandemic.
With schools going virtual, Huske decided to complete her coursework through Virtual Virginia so she could graduate high school in February and fully dedicate herself to training. The one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics also “made a big difference,” giving her more time to work on the finer details with Stiles and Ortmayer.
“I was able to get a lot stronger through my weight training, especially since I ‘fly and die,’ [meaning] I go out fast my first 50, hold on for the second 50,” she said. “[Ortmayer] did a really good job helping me with that.”
Ortmayer said he started helping Huske with strength training “to compete with the pros she was facing off with at the big meets.”
“In addition to improving her strength, we really focused on building athleticism in and out of the pool,” he said. “This has had major effects on her ability to train harder, recover faster, adjust her focus and details of her race, and, of course, compete better.”
In a few weeks, Huske will switch teams for the first time since she was five years old, say goodbye to her family, friends and coaches, and head to Stanford University.
“It’ll be fun to meet new people, be in a whole new environment, and have the freedom of college,” she said.
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