MASSILLON “Life is going faster and faster for Hunter Armstrong, but going fast is what he does, and it’s hard to tell if he’s keeping pace or not.
A quick try to slow down the fuzziness that was Armstrong’s last year:
He shocked the swimming world by making the U.S. Olympic team, winning an Olympic gold medal, hitting the speaking circuit, rocking the Big Ten in his college season, being named an athlete Ohio State’s Male of the Year (past winners include footballers Chris Spielman and Chase Young), turned pro, set a world record in qualifying for the World Swimming Championships, then took care of the event itself in Budapest.
“I wish I could have seen more of Budapest,” he said during a stop at the Western Stark County YMCA earlier this week.
He does not complain. Before the whirlwind of the world championships in Hungary, he and the American team spent two weeks exploring an unexpected wonderland, Croatia.
“It’s a whole thing,” he said. “You travel the world and someone else pays for it.”
He pays back with the atrocious diet that fuels his astonishing rise.
He talks about the race that gives him nightmares. He deals with a world of opportunity that was off the radar just yesterday.
On Monday, he was a 21-year-old rock star hanging out with young swimmers at the Western Stark County YMCA.
Four years ago, when he was just 17, he placed 13th in the 50-yard freestyle and 13th in the 100-yard breaststroke at the OHSAA swim meet in Guangzhou.
How did he become the fastest man in the history of the world during a race last 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 the 50 and 100 meter backstroke races.
His time in the 50m was a world record 23.71 seconds, beating a swum of 23.80 by Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov last year.
At the Worlds, he won a silver medal in the 50m backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke, battling well for gold. He added two gold medals and a gold medal in the relay at the World Championships.
Armstrong was beaten 24.12-24.14 at 50 by his American teammate Justin Ress. The top three in the 100 were Italy’s Thomas Ceccon in 51.60, Team USA’s Ryan Murphy in 51.97 and Armstrong in 51.98. Ceccon’s time was a world record.
At last summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, Armstrong helped Team USA advance to the final of the 400-meter medley relay by swimming the backstroke in the preliminaries. A different foursome, with Murphy on their backs, swam in the final. Swimmers from the preliminaries and finals won gold medals.
He will have to save it, but the consensus is that the best is yet to come.
This year’s Worlds reflected Armstrong’s continued rise. What is the difference between Armstrong now and the Armstrong who swam in the Olympics?
“It’s exponential,” he said.
Exponential improvement is what he’s been doing since improving his swimming goals from beating his brother, Jake, to becoming one of the sport’s big brothers.
The change came after his first year at Dover. He had participated in the Canton City Schools (CCS) club program which operates out of the Branin Natatorium, but he didn’t quite agree.
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 playing basketball in Roanoke, Utah. Virginia.
Hunter’s father, Ryan, is known in Dover as a former football player and manager. Ryan had a trainer’s eye for athletic movement. He noticed Hunter’s natural glide through the water.
One day, Ryan told CCS coach Mike Davidson that he thought Hunter could go far. Davidson said Hunter isn’t going anywhere until he gets 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 there for the CCS work.
You could say Hunter’s speed has shifted to where he is now.
His college career — one year in West Virginia, two years at Ohio State — is over. He turned pro and will leave his apartment in Columbus for the San Francisco Bay Area.
Matt Bowe, the coach who worked most closely with him 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 swimming professional means accepting an endorsement and receiving compensation. Pros are eligible to participate in the International Swimming League. Caleb Dressel, one of Armstrong’s mentors, topped the price list for a recent ISL season with $291,788.
Turning pro made sense for Armstrong on many levels. He has completed enough college work to be able to take on the coaching job he envisions when he retires from competition, possibly after the 2032 Olympics. He can now train without losing lesson time. The training will be done in a large pool, playing on his running strength in open water rather than swimming and turning.
“I’m going to train harder than ever,” he said. “I will have more free time than I have ever had.”
He’s famous now. He graced the cover of the June issue of Swimming World magazine.
“He’s absolutely the most elite athlete I’ve ever met in terms of focus, race readiness,” Coach Bowe told Swimming World. “By that, I don’t mean in the days before. I mean within 20-30 minutes before he runs. He puts on the blinders.
“His ability to handle pressure under bright lights is second to none.”
Hunter Armstrong has fun with Massillon YMCA Q&A
Armstrong’s appearance at Massillon was a window into his entry into world class. His likeable side shone through, though he never spoke of his busy school days playing drums, performing 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 practice. Her parents were there, eager to hook up before heading to California.
Until recently, Mom and Dad handled Hunter’s speaking requests. Now he has an agent.
Hunter’s comments during a Q&A mixed charm, humor and insight.
What music motivates him for a race?
“I love show tunes and country. It’s hard to indulge in ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ So I would say, rap.”
Your favorite way to fill up on carbs?
“I love pasta. You can never go wrong with pancakes.”
Her least favorite race?
“I have a deathly fear of the 200 backstroke. I told my coach at Ohio State that the day he puts me in the 200 backstroke is the day I transfer. But I understand that I have to TO DO.”
Her favorite event?
“The 200m freestyle short course. It lets you play games with your opponent. It’s so much fun to play with people.”
How do you live the moments before your biggest race?
“I always turn to prayer. With that, before my most stressful swims, I never felt nervous. That’s trust. That’s in God’s hands.”
Big meetings to come?
“There will be other Worlds in 2023, in Japan… then the Paris Olympics in 2024. It will be two very busy years.”
What was it like setting a world record?
“I don’t think of it as ‘fastest time ever’. I feel it as speed…nobody’s ever reached that speed before. It’s a really nice feeling.”
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