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Torri Huske used the extra Olympic year to become one of the U.S.’ fastest swimmers

Torri Huske

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 06: Torri Huske reacts after winning the Women’s 100 LC Meter Butterfly final during day three of the 2019 Toyota U.S. Open Championships at the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center on December 06, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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Torri Huske, an 18-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, is one of the faces of a teenage movement in the pool.

A school of young talent could break through at the Olympic Trials next month, many benefiting from Tokyo’s one-year postponement and an extra 364 days to gain on older collegians and professionals.

At the end of 2019, Huske, then a high school junior, ranked fourth in the nation in the 100m butterfly, eighth in the 200m individual medley and outside the top 10 in her other events across all ages.

This year, Huske is fastest in the 50m freestyle and 100m free (though Simone Manuel had faster times in 2019), second in the 100m fly, fourth in the 200m free and 200m IM and fifth in the 200m fly. The top two finishers per individual race at Trials make the team, plus likely four more each in the 100m and 200m frees for relays.

“I was afraid that she would be feeling fatigued, mentally and physically,” from the extra year of training, said Huske’s mom, Ying. “It turned out it’s better for her.”

Huske’s swim story begins with her mom, a native of Guangzhou, China, who moved to the U.S. in 1991. Ying was an architect in her birth nation -- and designed 30-story buildings, husband Jim boasts.

But she wanted to pursue a different career and could not.

“The government paid for our tuition, and they basically owned us,” Ying said. “I came [to the U.S.] for a better life, better opportunities and a better life for my future family.”

She followed friends and family who immigrated, enrolling in graduate school. First at Ohio State, then Virginia Tech, studying urban planning and then transportation engineering. She later taught herself computer engineering and information technology.

“She can solve problems like nobody’s business,” said Jim, whom she married in 2000. “Torri’s mind is similar to her mom’s.”

Ying swam in China and even more in the States, though never competitively. Jim swears she was in the pool on Dec. 6, 2002. The next day, Victoria -- “Torri” -- was born.

The Huskes put their only child in classes for taekwondo, art, ice skating, tap dancing and ballet. And swimming, though it didn’t look like the sport for a girl who was among the smallest in her grade.

“Part of the reason I didn’t like it was just because I was always cold,” Huske said. “I used to wear a wetsuit to practice because I was always shivering.”

Ying kept swimming, and so did Torri after initially balking at classes. An instructor encouraged mother and daughter to race each other.

“Torri was faster than me when she was 8 or 9 years old,” said Ying, who has visited China with her family three times and documents Huske’s swimming on a YouTube channel with more than 300 videos. “I was able to win against her in the breaststroke, but pretty soon she just beat me in everything.”

A decade ago, coach Evan Stiles noticed a group of about 30 swimmers in the 7- and 8-year age group at Arlington Aquatic Club. Huske stood out, because she was the one in a wetsuit. Stiles can’t recall anybody else wearing one in practices in his 28 years at AAC.

“She was so small and tiny that the water was so cold that she had to wear this wetsuit kind of thing just so she wouldn’t freeze to death while she was swimming,” he said.

Huske shed the wetsuit. Her potential began showing. Though, as Stiles put it, she was still “teeny-tiny.”

Huske joined Stiles’ group in her early teens while she steadily grew. He has been her club coach ever since.

“It’s not like she’s been this prodigy since day one,” Stiles said. “She had to work hard as a younger kid to get caught up to where all the bigger kids her age were.”

Huske also competed all four years for Yorktown High School, where 1996 and 2000 Olympic 400m IM champion Tom Dolan also swam and studied.

Torin Ortmayer took the Yorktown head coaching job in October 2017, one month before the start of Huske’s freshman season.

“One of the families reached out to me and said, hey, we’ve got a special swimmer coming,” Ortmayer said.

Later that winter, Ortmayer remembered Huske looking nervous before facing Virginia stars Cassidy Bayer, a senior, and Lexi Cuomo, a junior, in the 100 butterfly at the state championships. Both swam at the Olympic Trials two years earlier, with Bayer placing third in the 200m fly and just missing the Olympic team at age 16.

“I said, Torri, everybody’s Cassidy Bayer at this point,” Ortmayer remembered. “You’ve got to be able to measure up with these kids now if that’s where you want to be. She just kind of looked at me and was like, OK, and walked away and then went on to beat both of them.”

Ortmayer said he never saw Huske lose an individual event competing for the Patriots, including winning all eight of her state championships finals and leading the program to a team title this past season.

In summer 2019, Huske broke a 38-year-old national age group record in the 100m butterfly held by Olympic gold medalist Mary T. Meagher. After winning five golds at the world junior championships (three in relays), she and Ortmayer, who is also her strength coach, incorporated a strength training program.

They believed it would help her against older professional swimmers, who had years of conditioning programs at major universities, at the following year’s Olympic Trials.

In December 2019, Huske won the 100m butterfly at the U.S. Open on the eve of her 17th birthday. The field included Kelsi Dahlia, the top American in the event since 2015.

“Everything was about the 100m butterfly,” Ortmayer said. “It was all in on the 100m fly, and we’ll try our best with the other events that she was qualified for [at Trials].”

Everything changed in March 2020. Pools closed. The Olympics were postponed one year.

Huske, a straight-A student who will be a Stanford Cardinal, got bored as her classes went virtual. Her father called around, begging for a place to swim. She was stuck at home with her two cats, Cupcake and Truffles, and tried to relearn how to crochet.

So she took conditioning to another level, hopping on a stationary bike and a rowing machine in the basement for 45 minutes each in the morning. Then repeating it in the afternoon. She trained on a power tower, ran hills and hiked with friends and exhausted herself with battle ropes.

After two months out of the pool, the Huskes found a homeowner in Gainesville, a 45-minute drive from Arlington, with a 42-foot backyard pool. For a month and a half, Huske and her father commuted several mornings per week. Torri gave thanks by baking, bringing over lemon bars and brownies. (Stiles said Huske also draws her own thank-you cards and gives them to coaches.)

Huske alternated between training with a bungee cord, anchored by her dad sitting on deck, and trying to swim laps in a pool one-eighth the size of what they have at the Olympics. She made it three strokes before reaching the opposite wall, dizzying herself.

“The waves were knocking her back and forth,” said Wayne Lloyd, who with wife Mary owns the house. “I said, I know of a longer pool.”

Lloyd flew a drone to find another pool in the neighborhood that was uncovered. This one was 50 feet. The homeowner obliged. Huske spent a month there before AAC reopened last summer.

“She could take four, five, six strokes, and that was really, really nice,” her dad said. “People have been so giving and wonderful to Torri to help her make it.”

The modified exercise worked. In April, Huske lowered her personal bests in the 50m free, 100m free and 100m fly all by more than a half-second.

She is now back in a more normal training environment and focused on the Olympic Trials, though she’s had trouble finding larger, Olympic-size pools.

Huske hasn’t been in a classroom in 14 months, but last fall and winter completed Advanced Placement college-level classes online in environmental science, statistics, literature, Spanish and art (where her concentration was on water, submitting photos of her work virtually for grading).

Fifteen months ago, Huske could not have imagined missing her June 2021 high school graduation for an Olympic Trials. Nor being a contender to make the Olympic team in several races.

“We thought there was an outside chance in one event,” to make the Olympic team had the Games been held in 2020, Jim Huske said. “Everything’s come together.”

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