Rob Oller: Buckeyes swimmer Hunter Armstrong makes magic in Olympic trials
The card tricks began when Hunter Armstrong was a curious 8-year-old wanting to amaze his audience. On a long car ride to a YMCA swim meet, Armstrong got fooled by a teammate’s magic act and vowed that next time he would be the one pulling the surprise.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to learn how to do it and I’m going to be better than you,' ” Armstrong said this week, smiling as he revisited the memory.
Off to Tokyo: Armstrong finished second at Olympic Trials
Sure enough, the young magician worked at perfecting his sleight of hand, wearing out his friends by performing the same trick over and over.
“I mean, all right, I’ve seen this one 30 times,” recalled Will McCrate, a boyhood friend who swam on the same Tuscarawas County YMCA team. “But he kept getting better.”
“It’s all close-up magic,” Armstrong said of his hobby, which can be viewed on his Instagram account @hunterarmstrong_. “But I have a couple tricks with gum or a watch or a wallet. Or mentalism. That’s a lot harder. Mind reading and stuff like that.
"Unfortunately, you can’t do mentalism over camera or the internet, so it’s only person to person, face to face. A lot of it is social cues and knowing what people are most likely to pick. But it doesn’t always work.”
Armstrong tried his telepathy on me. It didn’t work.
Him: “Pick a number 1 to 10.”
Me: “Got it.”
Me: “Close. Eight.”
Him: “Most people pick seven. If you ever try this, pick that.”
Seven. That was Armstrong’s seeding number entering last week’s Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. Given his times, picking the 20-year-old to finish seventh in the 100-meter backstroke seemed about right.
No one picked No. 2, not even Armstrong, because placing second would have required pulling a rabbit out of his hat, and the amateur magician wasn’t yet good enough to accomplish that trick.
Or so anyone thought. But sports, like magic, are a fooler. Things that seem impossible — like a swimmer from little Dover, Ohio, making it to the Olympics — can happen right before your eyes. All it takes is hard work, coaching and enough of the right DNA.
Armstrong has all three. After nearly a decade of not taking his swimming seriously, he buckled down three years ago and began showing up to daily club team practices more than just twice a week.
After transferring from West Virginia to Ohio State in 2020, Armstrong also discovered how much he still needed to learn about training. Ohio State coaches Bill Dorenkott and Matt Bowe took one look at their relatively scrawny sprinter and sent him directly to the weight room.
“I was not prepared for what I was getting into,” Armstrong said. “Weight room aside, the swimming part of my workouts are the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
And finally, the DNA. Armstrong’s father, Ryan, played college football. His mother, Edie, played basketball. His brother, Jake, swam at West Virginia, where in 2017-18 he won Big 12 titles in the 100 breaststroke.
In Armstrong, genetics produced a 6-foot-7½, 185-pound human dolphin with size 16 feet.
“If you ever want to know what speed looks like in the water, that’s what it looks like,” Dorenkott said.
But it didn’t truly look like that until recently, when Armstrong’s focus became razor sharp.
“The most correlation between magic and swimming is learning to dedicate a lot of time on the smaller details,” he said.
The 100 backstroke covers two lengths of the pool. Up and back. During the trial finals on June 15, Armstrong wasn’t exactly killing it during the up portion.
“I thought I was doing pretty well on the first 50, but everybody else seems to disagree,” he said. “I thought I was going out a lot faster than I really was, because I was only a half body length behind Ryan Murphy.”
Makes sense. Murphy owns the world record in the 100 backstroke, so if Armstrong were within striking distance, it follows that his race was going well.
Uh … no. He was a very unmagical seventh at the turn.
But then, voila. In a twist on the old “now you see him, now you don’t” routine, no one saw Armstrong … until they did. Over the last 35 meters he kicked it home to finish second to Murphy and qualify for next month’s Tokyo Olympics, the first Ohio State swimmer in 65 years to compete in the Games. Ford Konno, George Onekea, Yoshi Oyakawa and Albert Wiggins represented the Buckeyes in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Thanks to his strong final push — the only sub-27 second split in the field — Armstrong finished in a career-best 52.48 seconds, lowering his seed time by nearly a second and backing up his out-of-nowhere performance in his June 14 semifinal heat, when he touched the wall first.
“I found another gear on that last 35 meters, where I’ve never felt anything like it,” he said.
Now it is on to Tokyo, where anything can happen.
“I’m so proud to finally represent the United States,” he said on Thursday, before flying to Hawaii for more training. “This is my first international meet and I don’t think there’s a better way to start.”
But there is a better way to end. With a gold medal. Don’t put it past the Magic Man to fool us again.
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