Torri Huske used to be called “Shiver.” Her swimming coaches gave her the nickname because her tiny frame couldn’t handle the cold water. She’d wear a wetsuit, but she’d still have blue-frosted lips and a quivering body when she climbed out of the pool.
She was far from a swimming prodigy, her father says. Far from the swimmer who would go on to set an American record in the butterfly. Far from the Olympian who will represent her country when the Tokyo Games begin this week.
The Arlington native was small, so when it came to swimming, her dreams weren’t big.
“When I was younger, making the Olympics was never really a dream to me because I never really thought I was capable of it,” Huske said.
Even now, the 18-year-old doesn’t look like the prototypical Olympic swimmer. She’s 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds — significantly smaller than Washington-area teammates Katie Ledecky (6 feet) and Phoebe Bacon (5-foot-10). She’s one of 11 teenagers who made the U.S. swimming team, and she very much looks like someone who just graduated high school.
But it’s when you watch Huske in the water that you quickly realize she belongs.
Huske’s first race in Tokyo will be held Saturday, when the heats for the 100-meter butterfly begin. The event could be a showcase for the sport’s next rising star.
Jim Huske said he didn’t realize his daughter “might be fast” until the 2017 Winter Nationals, when the then-14-year-old Huske swam the fifth-fastest time for her age group ever. Her coach, Evan Stiles, said he first thought Huske “might have a chance” to make the Olympics in 2019 at the same meet, when the teenager beat out 2016 Olympian Kelsi Dalia in the 100-meter fly. Huske says even she didn’t start thinking about Tokyo until a “year-and-a-half or two” ago.
Her rapid rise through the ranks surprised many, but her father says it’s indicative of how fast she learns — and how much she’s grown since the days when she was known as “Shiver.”
“She gets very comfortable quickly,” Jim Huske says. “I mean, this kid picks things up — she’s going to Stanford. She’s like nobody I’ve ever met. Her mom and I were talking last night and we just see this growth from week to week that’s just so different from the girl that we used to know.”
Huske, the latest from a long line of elite-level swimmers to emerge from the Washington area, took a different route than most of the region’s pool stars.
She largely avoided summer swim teams. With five-year waiting lists for the teams that Huske’s friends had joined, she decided she’d rather “sleep in and train hard” on her own.
Her parents had her join the Arlington Aquatic Club (AAC) and also work with private stroke coaches who would fine-tune the fundamentals.
When she was 11 — and just 4-foot-9, 79 pounds — she started swimming five days per week, year-round. The only extended break, her father said, came in August for two weeks, right before school started.
Her coach for almost five years, Stiles has been there as she methodically shaved seconds off her times. He has noted the dichotomy between Huske being a “sweet, fun-loving kid” outside the pool to being an ultracompetitive athlete in it.
At first, Huske’s talent was “hidden” because she swam alongside a talented crop of swimmers.
“She didn’t really stand out at that point as being anything exceptional because there were a bunch of kids doing that,” Stiles said, taking a pause. “But you put in her a race and all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Oh man, lights out. Where’d that come from?’”
Huske’s swimming potential became so undeniable that Stiles and Jim Huske had to have a conversation. Jim wanted to know if the AAC was the right club for his daughter. While the DMV area produced a lot of Olympic-level talent, the Arlington club didn’t have the same track record as the Nation’s Capital Swim Club — where Ledecky and other local Olympians trained. The Huskes contemplated a switch.
“I basically had to assure her dad that I was capable of getting her where she needed to be,” Stiles said.
Jim resisted making any moves. He looked at Huske’s setup. Beyond having confidence in Stiles, he saw her having fun.
“There’s great coaches everywhere,” Jim said. “Evan is proving himself to be a great coach.”
Building an Olympian’s body
Last year’s Olympic postponement turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Huske was able to focus on tuning her stroke and building up her strength. And with public pools shut because of COVID-19, Huske was out of her usual routine for months. Her coaches pivoted: They wanted her to get stronger. They had already begun incorporating more weight training in the months before. This was a chance to bear down on making her stronger.
Torey Ortmayer, Huske’s coach at Yorktown High School, also serves as her personal strength and conditioning coach. He installed a regimented workout plan aimed at adding strength in six-week cycles, with lower weight and higher reps that gradually progress to higher weight and decreased reps. Even with gyms closed, the workouts consisted of hour-long sessions in Huske’s basement — already equipped with dumbbells, a bench, free weights and ropes.
There were other exercises as well. Ortmayer challenged Huske to run up hills, use a rowing machine and ride a stationary bike.
Ortmayer had to be careful. The last thing Huske’s camp wanted was for her to gain so much weight that she got slower in the water.
“We didn’t want to turn Torri into a meatball,” Ortmayer said. “She isn’t trying to become an Olympic powerlifter. She’s trying to swim fast.”
Ortmayer turned to Keenan Robinson, the director of sports medicine and science at Team USA swimming. He sent in clips of Huske training and a breakdown of her routine, getting feedback in the process.
The plan worked. When Huske won the 100 fly and the 100 free at the 2019 U.S. Open, she weighed 118 pounds. Over the next four months — from December to April 2020 — she bulked up to 130. And after that, Huske added another 15 pounds. Huske has been hovering around 145 for the last year, Ortmayer said.
Huske noticed a difference in the pool.
“In the last two years, the thing that took her from, ‘I can be in the conversation with some of these people’ to ‘I can actually beat Olympians’ on that level has been the strength training,” Ortmayer said.
Handling the pressure
Six months before Huske secured her spot in Tokyo, before she set the American record in the 100 fly, Stiles wanted to push Huske to see what she could handle. Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, Stiles runs what he calls “Race to Zero.”
The drill, boiled down, is an endurance test. It starts with 40 swimmers who must complete a distance of 125 yards within a set amount of time. As the drill continues, the time gets shorter and shorter — forcing the swimmer to swim faster and faster. Fail to finish the 125 yards in time and you’re eliminated.
So on this particular winter morning, Huske is down to one final challenger. Everyone else has dropped out, exhausted from the grueling competition. And on the 45th lap — with Huske now having covered 6,000 yards in the water — Stiles can tell Huske doesn’t want to lose. He can see her pushing harder and harder.
And when Huske did it, when she finally prevailed, Stiles had one last demand: Do another one.
Huske obliged and made it back to the wall in time.
“That’s what it takes, that’s the heart, the drive, the desire, the willingness to push yourself through the pain to challenge yourself to the extreme,” Stiles said. “She hates to lose. Put her in a position where she might lose, and she’s going to fight like hell.”
There were days when all that training finally got to Huske. She admitted she felt “burned out” at times — exhausted more mentally than physically. During the pandemic, there were plenty of days she would be swimming in the pool alone. Huske told Stiles whenever she needed to take a day to recover.
But the next day, Huske would show up, ready to get into the pool again.
“It was really nice knowing that all my work had paid off from this past year,” Huske said.