Hunter Armstrong: Breakout World-Record Setter Just Tapping Into Potential

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From the June issue of Swimming World Magazine, a look at the development and breakout performances of American Hunter Armstrong.

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There was a time when Hunter Armstrong nearly quit swimming. Like just about everything in Armstrong’s swimming journey, it’s not exactly what you think. This wasn’t a tale of burnout. It wasn’t a plateau in training, of failing to better past times, of the pressure of expectations on a young star.

No, Armstrong told his hometown newspaper, the Times-Reporter in Ohio, last summer, that this desire to walk away was much more elemental.

“I was the slowest one on my team, and I was getting beat by the girls,” Armstrong said. “It was bad…. I wasn’t having fun, and I was tired of losing.”

Depending on your definition of “quit,” Armstrong got pretty close. (He admitted on an Instagram Q&A from the U.S. Olympic team’s White House visit in May, that, “I actually did quit swimming in middle school.”) But nearly a decade on, little of that matters when Armstrong is behind the block, authoring new chapters to one of the most fascinating stories in American swimmingArmstrong wasn’t the fastest 12-year-old. He wasn’t the fastest at 14. He wasn’t the fastest high school swimmer in Ohio, and he started college at West Virginia, hardly a powerhouse.

And now?

Now, Hunter Armstrong is an Olympic gold medalist from the men’s 400 medley relay in Tokyo. And he’s the fastest man ever over 50 meters of backstroke, a record set at the recent U.S. International Team Trials in Greensboro, N.C. “It means the world, pun intended,” Armstrong said then.

Armstrong’s ascent as a multi-sport athlete and a late specializer should mean something for American swimming. He challenges so many of the pre-conceived notions of what an international swimmer should be at various youth mileposts. Highlighting what makes Armstrong so special lets him serve as an example in finding other swimmers like him.

“I think his personality, he’s very driven internally,” said Matt Bowe, who was Armstrong’s coach at Ohio State and has since taken an assistant’s role at Cal. “It’s almost like the inner kid in him. He really wants to compete. He wants to race against people. He is one of those athletes in practice who sees someone next to him and wants to race them. I think that’s one of his biggest strengths, staying hungry and wanting to race people.”

FROM NOWHERE TO TOKYO

It bears repeating how unlikely Armstrong’s Olympic place seemed last summer. He was a part-time swimmer up until 2018, splitting time with football before committing to swimming. An all-state selection in Ohio, he never won a state title, twice runnerup to University of Florida standout Adam Chaney. He finished 13th at the NCAA Championships in the 100 back and 21st in the 50 freestyle in 2021. His goal entering Olympic Trials was a top-six finish to make the national team.

He ended up in the top five all-time in American history, his time of 52.48 seconds booking a ticket to Tokyo behind Ryan Murphy. The rocket ride that began with an outstanding TYR Pro Swim Series in May landed him ninth in the Olympics, 1-hundredth out of the final, before earning gold in prelims of the medley relay.

When Bowe and Ohio State coach Bill Dorenkott landed Armstrong in Columbus, they knew they were getting a diamond in the rough. But they perhaps did not know how brilliant that gem would shine. They knew polishing his technique would lead to gains, as would a dedicated weightlifting regimen for the first time. But his improvement is beyond any expectation.

“He wasn’t an athlete who did a ton of yardage when he was younger,” Bowe said. “He didn’t have a lot of the basic skills, and was pretty raw in terms of his talent. I remember when we were recruiting him, being at junior nationals, and his coach, Mike (Davidson), was teaching him at the meet how to do an open turn. It was pretty funny to see a high school senior being taught that kind of stuff.

“It’s really been no different since he got to college. His skill level on certain basic things—starts, turns—he’s had a huge scope for improvement and he is improving those things, which is why he’s getting so much faster.”

His Tokyo trip may have come out of the blue, but it’s a testament to his mentality that Armstrong has gotten faster since. Dorenkott said last summer that he saw a world record in Armstrong’s future; sprint buddy Michael Andrew predicted it the day of the swim in Greensboro.

Armstrong made good on those prognostications. His 50 back was the only world record of the meet, first downing Murphy’s American record at 24.01 in prelims, then dashing the world record set last year by Kliment Kolesnikov with a time of 23.71. The next day, he gutted out the 100 back, attacking the front half to best Murphy and get to Worlds in 52.20. And he showed his range by tying Drew Kibler for fourth in the 100 free, giving him a relay swim at Worlds in an event where he finished 19th in Omaha a year ago. He also tied for fifth in the 50 free in 22.00 in Greensboro.

An astute kid, Armstrong is not oblivious to the doubters. His goal in 2022 was, primarily, to prove that 2021 wasn’t a fluke. The willingness to shout out vulnerability hints at a toughness crafted in domains beyond swimming.

“To be able to rebound and show that making the Olympics wasn’t a mistake, that was my biggest worry going into this meet,” Armstrong said. “I had to prove to myself and others that I deserved to be on that team, and hopefully I’m able to back that up at Worlds.”

BECOMING A STAR

The Olympic stage was an adjustment for Armstrong, as it would be for any first-timer, much less a swimmer at his first major international meet. But the tenor of the changes Armstrong had to get used to was, let’s say, slightly different than merely being in awe of a large (and empty) venue.

“When I got to the Olympics, all of our staff was great and supportive, but they kind of just expected that I knew what I was doing. And I don’t,” Armstrong said, in his typically frank way. “Last summer was my third summer ever swimming. I don’t know how to warm up. I don’t know how much to warm down. And luckily I have a great sprint coach (Bowe) who kind of has me on a leash and makes sure that I do everything I’m supposed to do.”

Armstrong has gotten plenty of help. The American backstroke program is not only the world’s most dominant, but one of the most distinguished groups in world swimming. (Evgeny Rylov’s backstroke double in Tokyo ended the streak of six consecutive golds in each event for American men; in addition to 12 gold medals since the 1996 Olympics, American men have won seven silver and two bronze.) The latest star in that lineage, Murphy, is also an exemplary leader. He’s taken Armstrong “under his wing” as an extra coach figure to guide Armstrong in the little things he feels he should already know.

It doesn’t hurt that Armstrong is a fascinating character outside of the pool. He gained attention last summer for his card tricks, keeping Team USA entertained and relaxed. He played drums in the marching band through middle school. He’s well-rounded in a way that kids who devote themselves full time to swimming when they’re in elementary school don’t often get a chance to be.

That may play into his resilience. NCAAs weren’t the best this year, Armstrong finishing fifth in the 100 back and 16th in the 100 free. He called them “emotionally draining,” plus physically taxing on a triple taper.

But with the return to the long-course pool, he’s right back where he left off last season. And he’s proving he can build on the high of Tokyo.

THE UNIQUE FEEL

Where so many swimmers have to learn how to race at elite levels, Armstrong has almost done the opposite. He had the athleticism and competitiveness; it was just a matter of reinforcing the swimming aspect. The gifts he entered Ohio State with are undeniable, both physical and mental. They only needed molding by the right set of coaches and circumstances.

Bowe puts it this way: The former Loughborough University swimmer and coach, who represented Great Britain internationally, has worked with his share of Olympians. He believes coaching is a two-way street, and he attempts to learn from his swimmers as well. So when he first saw what he calls “some quirky things” in Armstrong’s technique, Bowe heard his swimmer out instead of jumping in to correct, even on fine points he wouldn’t necessarily install if starting from scratch. If Armstrong was comfortable with an unorthodox, yet effective arm angle for his freestyle catch, or if his fingers were less vertical through the stroke than recommended, Bowe wanted to work with it. Even now, Armstrong is one of the world’s premier backstrokers while primarily training freestyle sets.

What Bowe and Dorenkott recognized in Armstrong is his feel for the water, ineffable as that concept is. Crucially, it doesn’t look the same as his peers’ feel for the water, but it’s special nonetheless.

“Our job is not to change them, but to refine them or make them better,” Bowe said. “But you don’t want to change things if it’s working or it’s successful for them.”

One odd example is that Armstrong is a better long-course swimmer. Their theory is that because he lacks technique on underwaters and turns, he’s not able to capitalize on the short pool’s more numerous walls. (His world record is one start, one breakout and then just swimming.) If you think of long course as the realm of the pure technicians, the discipline over which you can’t fake it, it would seem unlikely that Armstrong excels there.

Or take International Trials, where Armstrong was spent after his world record in the 50, but still had the 100 back to go. Instead of sitting back like at Olympic Trials, where he was seventh at the 50-meter mark before rallying, Armstrong attacked it from the start. It ended with a win over Murphy…and a high-level swimming concept executed with aplomb.

It’s tantalizing to think what Armstrong can do with more time as a swimmer. It’s equally interesting to take the broad view of how many swimmers might be able to follow his unorthodox path—the right combination of talent, passion, program and mentoring—to take the strides he has.

“He is absolutely the most elite athlete I’ve ever met in terms of being able to focus in on getting ready to race,” Bowe said. “By that, I don’t mean in the days leading up. I mean in the 20 to 30 minutes before he races, you can just tell that he puts the blinders on, clears out the distractions. His ability to handle pressure under the bright lights is second to none.”

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Old Coach
16 days ago

A great story and perhaps a cautionary tale? Do we need preadolescent athletes specializing? Perhaps to be an athlete first, then a swimmer? Or a football player. Or a volleyball player. Or a gymnast. Etc

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Matthew Connery
10 days ago

Great article, with real reporting and interviewing. I can’t wait to see how fast he can go!

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