Hunter Armstrong's 'exponential' growth leads to world record, more medals, turning pro
MASSILLON — Life moves progressively faster for Hunter Armstrong, but moving fast is what he does, and it's hard to say whether he is keeping up with it, or it is keeping up with him.
A quick try at slowing down the blur that has been Armstrong's last year:
He shocked the swim world by making the U.S. Olympic Team, won an Olympic gold medal, hit the speaking circuit, rocked the Big Ten in his college season, was named Ohio State Male Athlete of the Year (past winners include footballers Chris Spielman and Chase Young), turned pro, set a world record in qualifying for the World Swim Championships, then got busy at the event itself in Budapest.
"I wish I could have seen more of Budapest," he said during a stop at the YMCA of Western Stark County earlier this week.
He isn't complaining. Before the World Championship whirl in Hungary, he and Team USA spent two weeks exploring an unexpected wonderland, Croatia.
"It's quite a thing," he said. "You travel the world and somebody else pays for it."
He repays with the excruciating regimen that powers his astonishing ascent.
He speaks of the race the gives him nightmares. He wraps his head around a world of opportunity that was off the radar only yesterday.
This past Monday, he was a 21-year-old rock star hanging out with young swimmers at the YMCA of Western Stark County.
Four years ago, as a 17-year-old Dover High School junior, he placed 13th in the 50-yard freestyle and 13th in the 100-yard breaststroke at the OHSAA state swim meet in Canton.
How did he get from there to fastest man in world history in a race this past April?
Hunter Armstrong sets world record
The place was Greensboro, North Carolina. The races were to determine who made Team USA for the 2022 World Swimming Championships. Armstrong did more than make the team. He won both the 50- and 100-meter backstroke races.
His time in the 50 was a world-record 23.71 seconds, beating a 23.80 swum by Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov last year.
At Worlds, he won a silver medal in the 50 backstroke and a bronze in the 100 backstroke, putting up a good fight for gold. He added two golds and a sliver in relays at the World Championships.
Armstrong was edged 24.12-24.14 in the 50 by USA teammate Justin Ress. The top three in the 100 were Italy's Thomas Ceccon in 51.60, Ryan Murphy of Team USA in 51.97 and Armstrong in 51.98. Ceccon's time was a world record.
In last summer's Olympics in Tokyo, Armstrong helped Team USA to the finals of the 400-meter medley relay by swimming the backstroke leg in prelims. A different foursome, with Murphy on the backstroke, swam in the finals. Both the prelim and finals swimmers got gold medals.
He'll have to back it up, but the consensus is that the best is yet to come.
This year's Worlds reflected Armstrong's continuing climb. What is the difference between Armstrong now and the Armstrong that swam in the Olympics?
"It's exponential," he said.
Exponential improving is what he has done ever since upgrading his swim goals from beating his brother, Jake, to becoming one of the big brothers of the sport.
The change came after his junior year at Dover. He had dabbled in the Canton City Schools (CCS) club program that works out of Branin Natatorium, but he wasn't all in.
He was in tune. His grandfather, Tom Armstrong, played football and swam at Wittenberg College in the 1950s. Hunter's mother, Edie, was a state-champion age-group swimmer before she was a basketball player in Roanoke, Virginia.
Hunter's dad, Ryan, is known in Dover as former football player and coach. Ryan had a coach's eye for athletic movement. He noticed Hunter's natural glide through water.
One day Ryan told CCS coach Mike Davidson he thought Hunter could go places. Davidson said Hunter wasn't going anywhere until he got more serious.
Following through may have been as simple as Hunter getting a driver's license. It was much easier for him to get from Dover to Canton as soon as he could drive himself there for the CCS work.
One might say Hunter speed shifted to where he is now.
His college career — one year at West Virginia, two years at Ohio State — is over. He has turned pro and will move out of his apartment in Columbus to the San Francisco Bay.
Matt Bowe, the coach who worked with him most closely at Ohio State, left for a job at NCAA powerhouse Cal-Berkeley. In addition to his duties with the Cal-Berkeley team, Bowe will work with Armstrong and other pros.
Generally, being a swim pro means one has accepted an endorsement and is receiving compensation. Pros are eligible to compete in the International Swimming League. Caleb Dressel, one of Armstrong's mentors, led the prize-money list from a recent ISL season with $291,788.
Turning pro made sense to Armstrong on a few levels. He has completed enough college work to be in position for the coaching job he envisions when he retires from competition, possibly after the 2032 Olympics. He now can train without the time drain of classes. The training will be in long course, playing to his strength of open-water racing rather than swim-and-turn.
"I'll be training harder than I've ever trained," he said. "I'll have more free time than I've ever had."
He's famous now. He was the cover story for the June issue of Swimming World magazine.
“He is absolutely the most elite athlete I’ve ever met in terms of focusing in, on getting ready to race,” coach Bowe told Swimming World. “By that, I don’t mean in the days leading up. I mean in the 20 to 30 minutes before he races. He puts the blinders on.
"His ability to handle pressure under the bright lights is second to none.”
Hunter Armstrong has fun with Massillon YMCA Q&A
Armstrong's appearance in Massillon was a window to his walk into world class. His personable side glowed, even though he never talked about his well-rounded school days of playing drums, acting in school plays and imagining a career on Broadway.
He addressed a few dozen youngsters who were there to get autographs from an Olympian and then jump into the pool for a workout. His parents were there, eager to connect before he heads to California.
Until recently, mom and dad handled Hunter's requests for speaking engagements. Now he has an agent.
Hunter's remarks during a question-answer combined charm, humor and insight.
What music gets him pumped up for a race?
"I like show tunes and country. It's hard to get pumped up to 'Dear Evan Hansen.' So I would say, rap."
Your favorite way to carb up?
"I love pasta. You can never go wrong with pancakes."
His least favorite race?
"I'm deathly afraid of the 200 backstroke. I told my Ohio State coach that the day he puts me in the 200 back is the day I transfer. But I understand I have to do it."
His favorite event?
"The 200 freestyle short course. It let's you play games with your opponent. It's so much fun to mess with people."
How do you work through the moments before your biggest race?
"I always turn to prayer. With that, before my most stressful swims, I've never felt nervous. It's trust. It's in God's hands."
Big meets coming up?
"There will be another Worlds in 2023, in Japan ... then the Olympics in Paris in 2024. It's going to be a very busy couple of years."
What was it like to set a world record?
"I don't look at it as a 'fastest time ever.' I feel it as speed ... no one has ever hit that speed before. It's a really neat feeling."
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