Five takeaways from Hunter Armstrong in the wake of his harrowing, exhilarating Olympics

Hunter Armstrong came within one one-hundredth of a second of making the Olympic finals in his specialty, the 100-meter backstroke.
Steve Doerschuk
The Repository
Hunter Armstrong concludes a radio interview during a community meet and greet, Wednesday, August 4 at Pam's Posies in Dover, Ohio.

Tuscarawas County knew Hunter Armstrong because he was a football player and then a standout swimmer at Dover High School.

Stark County tuned in when Armstrong went to the Olympic Trials, becoming aware of his important developmental stint with the Canton City Schools regional team.

The world was watching when Armstrong made Team USA and won a gold medal. The medal came with an asterisk, but that's part of an untold Olympic story shared by Armstrong a month later as he settles into college life at Ohio State.

Here are five of his takeaways from his Olympic experience:

Hunter Armstrong is the first Ohio State male swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team in 65 years.

Hunter Armstrong learns lessons from his first Olympics

TOPIC 1: Late to the sport, Armstrong wasn't supposed to make Team USA out of the Olympic Trials. He did. In Tokyo, he came within one one-hundredth of a second of making the finals in his specialty, the 100-meter backstroke.

ARMSTRONG: I'd never been to an international meet. My biggest meet was the NCAAs a month and a half before the Trials. I went into the Olympic semifinals, unfortunately, overthinking, because ... because I was terrified. I thought things like, this is going to be the hardest one ... this is where everything's going to matter. And I abandoned all race strategy in hopes to just take my swims to the next level.

"I had held back on every one of my swims, because it hurt too much. So going into that semifinal,  I'm like ... OK, it's kind of like your last chance. Ironically I didn't want to end up missing the finals by a tiny fraction. I just gave it everything I had, and I just overswam the first 50. I went out too fast and ... died.

Hunter Armstrong, a rising junior on the Ohio State University men's swimming team, during practice, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. The Dover High School graduate, has a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics as part of the USA Men's Swim Team. He's the first Ohio State male swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team in 65 years.

"It taught me valuable lessons, to deal with disappointment, to trust my body and my training, and to not throw everything out the window at the biggest race of your life.

"It taught me to overcome a lot of adversity, but that's a long story that will have to be for another conversation."

TOPIC 2: His 100 backstroke semifinal became more than a matter of pushing through pain, as all top swimmers must.

ARMSTRONG: "It was beyond pain. It was muscle failure. My legs were not working. My arms were not working. In that moment, it was pure fear. How am I going to finish this race? I know people are passing me, because I can't do anything. My body just shut down.

Hunter Armstrong starts in his heat of the men's 100-meter backstroke at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021.
Hunter Armstrong swam in the preliminaries for the U.S. 4x100 medley relay swim team.

"I feared for that moment, like ... this is something so many people have worked for, and everybody's watching, and I'm here to prove myself. I felt I let everybody down in that moment. The amount of support I got afterward really helped me get through. 

"But, honestly, that meet was psychologically the hardest meet I will ever go through. It definitely took a toll."

Hunter Armstrong does his part to help Team USA 400 medley relay win gold again

TOPIC 3: Armstrong, Andrew Wilson, Tom Shields and Blake Pieroni were entrusted to get Team USA to the 400 medley relay finals, while the finals team, Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew, Caeleb Dressel and Zach Apple, rested. The plan worked perfectly. Armstrong and the semifinals group reached finals. The finals group set a world record the next day. All eight men received a gold medal.

ARMSTRONG: "That's got to be one of the top three moments in my life. I was in the stands when they did it, which was hard for me, because I wanted to be in the water. I knew I was capable of being on that relay, but I just wasn't having the meet where I would have been best for Team USA. 

Hunter Armstrong (USA) in the men's 100m backstroke semifinals  during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 26, 2021.

"When I watched them win that medal, I broke down. It was just pure pride. Team USA for swims was 70% first-timers. We were seeing a complete shift on our Olympic team and so many people doubted us. We not only won that relay and held off the expected top two, Australia and Britain, but we did it in word-record time and ended the meet with a bang. That is something I will never forget."

TOPIC 4: The road to Tokyo and back has been a soul-searching journey.

ARMSTRONG: "I thought I was supposed to be there, and I was supposed to do something. Honestly, there was a moment when I felt I let God down because ... I wanted to sort of share my story and my faith on the world's biggest stage, and I didn't hold up my end of the bargain. 

"It did teach me ... you don't pray just to get what you want. It's not a bank. You don't pray and say, oh, yeah, help me get fast, and help me make this team. God gave everybody their own gift, not just because he wants it for Him, but because He wants His children to be happy and enjoy life, and ... in simple terms, faith is everything to me. 

Former Dover High swimming coach Brenda Wherley gets to hold Hunter Armstrong's Olympic Gold Medal from Tokyo during a community meet and greet in Dover.

"If my calling is to make that semifinal and be able to preach and hopefully inspire youth and I never see another Olympics, if that's what I'm supposed to do, I'm all for it. I would absolutely love to continue with the sport, but I trust God's plan completely."

Focused on being himself and an Ohio State Buckeye swimmer

TOPIC 5: Armstrong is all in as an Ohio State student and swimmer as a wave of public appearances ebbs. A few months ago, when he was "just an Olympic Trials long shot," he said he dreamed of being an actor. 

ARMSTRONG: "It's funny you would bring that up. I went to Tusky Valley and spoke to the volleyball team and the soccer team and cross country. A girl came up to me and said she was really happy to see a successful athlete be a part of theater, because those two don't often go together.

"She told me she was sort of made fun of for being an athlete and being in theater. At my high school, my brother was an good athlete who also was in theater, so I thought that was normal. I didn't think it was as cliche as High School Musical ... "jocks can't sing." Apparently some places are like that. 

Hunter Armstrong made his Olympic debut in Tokyo and won a gold medal.

"I hope I can share the story of you can do whatever you like to do. Don't follow what other people think.

"I love theater. That's why I picked a minor in it. I would really enjoy using this platform to get a name and maybe make it in the film industry. I love acting. I love to sing, which kind of makes me gravitate toward Broadway. I have some commercials coming up. 

"As a swimmer, I know what I'm capable of, but there's so much work that has to be done. I'm focused on my NCAA season and performing the best I can for my teammates on the Buckeyes. After the season, we have world trials in April. 

Hunter Armstrong reacts after winning the Men's 100 Backstroke during wave 2 of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on Monday, June 14, 2021, in Omaha, Neb.

"There are some really big meets before the Olympics. I try not to look too far ahead. But I do have my sights set on Paris."

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Dover's Hunter Armstrong made his Olympic debut in Tokyo.