Newcomer Hunter Armstrong Looking to Drum Up Medals in Tokyo

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Hunter Armstrong; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Newcomer Hunter Armstrong Looking to Drum Up Medals in Tokyo

The decision for Hunter Armstrong wasn’t easy. He loved both activities, though in different ways. He was good at both, but in order to be great at either, he’d have to commit. The days of doing both had long-since passed, at least at the level to which he aspired.

No, Armstrong isn’t talking about what has become his swimming origin story, when the backstroker/sprint freestyler from Dover, Ohio, had to choose between football and swimming in the summer of 2018, finally devoting himself to the sport that will take him to the Tokyo Olympics.

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Hunter Armstrong; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Instead, Armstrong was faced with a similar decision three summers earlier. Since sixth grade, he’d played in the concert band at Dover, a town of 13,000 people in Eastern Ohio with a football stadium that seats 5,000. But upon entering high school, sticking with marching band in the percussion section wasn’t something that could coexist with being a linebacker and wide receiver on the gridiron. Armstrong has long had a flair for performance – see his card trick to unveil the captains at U.S. Olympic Team camp in Hawaii – so he thought long and hard about what to give up.

And swimming then? While others who finished behind him at last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials were pounding out yards and setting age-group records, Armstrong was a part-timer, gets his fix of sports in other ways.

With that unique journey, you won’t offend Armstrong by asking if his spot representing the United States in the men’s 100 backstroke feels a tad unlikely. He freely admits to that and all that followed his sensational Trials performance.

“It’s been crazy,” Armstrong said by phone last week from the U.S. training camp. “I haven’t really gotten to see my family or anyone from town, but my phone has been blowing up. It’s crazy. Luckily it’s a pretty good distraction being down here in Hawaii. I’m just training and hanging out with teammates, so I’m not thinking about how much I miss home. It’s all crazy.”

The goal for Armstrong entering Trials was a top-six finish to put him on the national team for the next year. It wasn’t until he trounced his personal-best with a 54.46, then a 53.69 back-to-back at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis on May 15 that an Olympic berth seemed plausible.

Though he still deemed a trip to Tokyo as “possible, but unlikely,” his parents had to be the one to break the good news to him that it might be more than that.

“Ever since TYR Pro (in May), my parents have been saying, ‘this is a potential. You have a shot,’” Armstrong said. “But I didn’t want to believe that I had a shot because then I would be disappointed.”

Armstrong swam well enough at Trials to leave no doubt. He set best times every time out, from 53.28 in prelims to 52.67 in semifinals to 52.48 in finals. At every stage, as swimmers with bigger pedigrees faded, only he and Ryan Murphy were left to punch tickets to Tokyo, in an event that the U.S. hasn’t failed to win gold in since 1992.

That’s how a part-time swimmer in 2018, someone who never won a state championship in high school (he finished runnerup twice to Florida standout Adam Chaney), who finished 13th at March’s NCAA Championships in the 100 back (his highest finish, to go with 21st in the 50 free), who started at West Virginia before transferring to Ohio State, ends up representing the deepest swimming program in the world at the Olympics.

At a certain level, the former Crimson Tornados linebacker understands that. Even when he compliments himself, it comes with a little jab, saying that his increased comfort in the long-course pool is because he, “lacks all the little details,” the technical aspects like turns and breakouts that short-course rewards more. (The more compassionate assessment: His 6-foot-6 frame means he’s able to transfer exquisite amounts of power in a technically clean stroke that outswims his peers).

One thing he will take credit for is how hard he’s worked in the weight room at Ohio State. He didn’t hit his true growth spurt until the summer before his senior year of high school, and he didn’t have a proper weight-training regimen until arriving in Columbus.

“Absolutely crucial. I do not think I’d be anywhere close to where I am now without our weight program,” he said. “… I’ve gotten a lot stronger with just how much harder our swim workouts are, but that is basically a fraction of the improvement compared to what I’ve accomplished in the weight room.”

Even with just the 100 back – and its place in the prelims of the medley relay – on his docket for Tokyo, Armstrong is sticking with freestyle-heavy training in Hawaii. (He finished 19th in the 100 free in Omaha.) He’s in a training group with Bowe Becker and Caeleb Dressel, where he says coach Gregg Troy has to frequently remind the uber-competitive trio that there are no medals for the winner of warmups.

It might, objectively speaking, be a surprise that he’s going to Tokyo. But that doesn’t matter when he gets in the pool there. He flourished in the crucible of Trials. He’s an Olympian. It’s hard to lessen the pressure that he already didn’t feel, but with his objectives accomplished and then some, he’s free to fly in Tokyo.

“Trials, I feel like that’ll be the hardest meet I have to compete in,” Hunter Armstrong said. “It helps not having many expectations. I feel like there’s no pressure on me because no one expects me to do anything, but obviously I want to succeed, I want to represent the United States the best that I can. But I try to stay grounded in the fact that I’ve already achieved so much more than I had anticipated, so anything from here on out is just the cherry on top.”

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Jeff/Bev Kirkbride
1 year ago

Hunter Armstrong I have known for years. From the little kid hiding underneath the church pew where the ushers sat to the new and fresh Olympian. The sky is the limit Hunter. Do your best is all you can do. Go Go Go.

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Anonymous
1 year ago

You Can do anything you put your mind to. We are ALL proud of you, no matter the out come. Good luck & God bless you.

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Anonymous
1 year ago

Go for gold Hunter……You’re an Olympian…..

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Faith Patton Settles
1 year ago

A Winner never Quits and a Quitter never Wins!!
You got this Hunter Armstrong! Success is when preparation meets opportunity!