Torri Huske set an American record in the 100-meter butterfly swimming event, qualified for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, won a silver medal in a relay event there, and now competes on the Stanford University women’s swimming and diving team.

She accomplished all those things as a teenager — though not without guidance and support from others. Her father, Jim, focused on Torri’s nutrition, mental make-up, and training logistics. Her coach for the past four years, Evan Stiles, devoted a lot of one-on-one attention to Torri, and her high school coach, Torin Ortmayer, helped with Torri’s strength training. Friends in the community offered access to 50-meter pools for training when the COVID-19 pandemic forced public pools to close.  

“It takes a village to raise an Olympian,” Ying Huske said, thankful for everyone’s contributions to her daughter’s exploits. “I was just a cheerleader throughout Torri’s Olympic journey.”

That Ying Huske, Torri’s mother and biggest fan, understates her role in her daughter’s success comes as no surprise. She humbly downplays her own achievements, which are impressive in their own right.

Huske, who graduated with a master’s degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech’s Department of Civil Engineering within the College of Engineering in 1995, grew up during the Cultural Revolution under leader Mao Zedong in her native China. She overcame the hardships of living in the remote countryside where her parents were sent for “re-education.” At the age of 30, she came to the United States to pursue a dream.

Today, Huske has raised an Olympian (with help from Jim, of course) and works in information technology for the Department of Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, Carderock Division in Bethesda, Maryland.

“I feel like I was lucky,” Ying Huske said. “I’ve been very lucky.”

Or at the least, persistent and courageous. Maybe a combination of all three. Certainly, her story deserves to be told, especially during a year in which Virginia Tech is celebrating 100 years of women at the university. She is unquestionably a university success story, like the many who came to Virginia Tech before her and went on to blaze their own trails.

Torri Huske with silver medal
Ying Huske's daughter, Torri (second from right), won a silver medal in the 4x100-meter medley relay at the Summer Olympics held in Tokyo. Others on the relay team were Regan Smith (far left), Lydia Jacoby (second from left) and Abbey Weitzell. Photo courtesy of Ying Huske.

Huske grew up in Guangzhou, China, northwest of Hong Kong. Her parents were relocated to the remote countryside from 1968-72, performed physical labor, and attended meetings to study Mao’s “Little Red Book,” which included quotes from the man considered the founding father of China. She and her siblings played in the river and in the mountains with other kids who lived in a village-like setting. Naïve to the situation at the time, they accepted the spartan conditions as a way of life.

“The living arrangement was one room for one family,” Huske said. “They had some small dividers in the room, so the parents could be in one area and the kids in one area. There were no bathrooms and no running water, so we had to go to the river to fetch water, to take a shower, and wash your clothes. It was a lot of work.

“We were not allowed to cook. We had to go to a communal type of dining hall to get meals. Later on, they loosened up, and we could cook our meals ourselves occasionally.”

Despite the rugged circumstances, Huske thrived in school and received an invitation to take the national college entrance exam while in her first year of high school at the age of 16. She passed the test and attended college, a fortunate occurrence because Mao had closed the higher education system in China for 10 years during the Cultural Revolution before reopening it in 1977.

Understandably, Huske entered college unsure of which career she wanted to pursue, so her father picked architecture for her. After taking a few classes, she realized that it was not a good fit.

“But at the time, the government paid for our tuition fee and everything, and the policy at the time was, once we got to college, we were not allowed to change our major," Huske said. “So, I had to continue with four years of architecture, and later on, I continued on to get my master’s degree in architecture design.”

Huske practiced as an architect for several years, though begrudgingly. She wasn’t allowed the opportunity to switch careers.

She saw an avenue for a better life after her brother and her best friend went to the United States to go to school. She decided to follow that same route, and at the age of 30, she came to the U.S., arriving in Columbus, Ohio to pursue a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at Ohio State.

She found herself living in a totally different world, and the language barrier proved difficult to overcome. She enrolled in an English language program in Columbus to help her hurdle that barrier.

Mingzhi Li, an assistant director for international student programs within the Cranwell International Center at Virginia Tech, can relate. Though nearly three decades younger than Huske, Li came to the U.S. from her native China to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and student personnel psychology, which she received from the University of Minnesota in 2011.

Li, who has worked with international students in her career roles over the past decade and now oversees programs that support international students, struggled with English when she first arrived in the United States, even though she fared well in her courses in China. She considers English in social settings as one of the obstacles for certain international students, along with finding a community of friends.

Today, though, there are resources available at Virginia Tech to help, including the Writing Center, which offers English conversation support, and social events offered by the Cranwell International Center. Students only need to seek them out — a concept difficult for some.

“In China, in elementary school, middle school and high school, you always had this head teacher who closely monitored everyone and checked in with students frequently,” Li said. “But here, you’re on your own. If you feel down, if you feel you’re not keeping up, then you are the agent to try to figure out what are the resources to help you. You have to physically make the move to contact them, which is quite a transition still for some new international students. Here, there are a lot of resources out there, but you have to be making the proactive move to connect to the resources that can help you.”

Ying Huske posing with daughter Torri
Ying Huske (left) takes more pride in her daughter Torri's accomplishments than her own. Photo courtesy of Ying Huske.

Huske’s proactiveness led to her becoming more comfortable with the English language, even more so after transferring to Virginia Tech and conversing daily with her roommates. She had not been totally comfortable at Ohio State, with its large student population in an urban setting — a setting unfamiliar to her — and tuition costs worried her. Academically, her classes focused more on urban planning, and she wanted to explore true engineering.

So, she decided to make the move from Columbus to Blacksburg after getting accepted at Virginia Tech.

“I was so happy when I got to Virginia Tech,” Huske said. “The feel of the campus was so different. It was smaller in the sense of community. I felt like the faculty were more engaging to students. It just felt like home when I went to Virginia Tech.”

While at Virginia Tech, she applied for and received an Eisenhower fellowship — a program that covered her tuition and fees and provided her with a stipend check. The Eisenhower fellowship brought Huske to the Washington, D.C., area to work for the Department of Transportation, while also giving her an opportunity to collect data for her thesis.

She completed her degree requirements, finished her thesis, graduated, and quickly found a job in the D.C. area, where she has remained ever since.

Given what she’s overcome, she represents the perfect role model for today’s international students and especially for young women.

“Yes, definitely,” Li said when asked if she had an appreciation for Huske’s career lifepath. “All immigrants, more or less, we all have experienced some sort of obstacles, and you have to really push yourself so hard.

“I tell international students to be open-minded. Have a realistic expectation. Always remind yourself that you have to step out of your comfort zone. You have to.”

The 59-year-old Huske stepped out of her comfort zone 30 years ago and now lives the life that most want — one with a great spouse, an Olympian for a daughter, and a job that allows her to grow and find solutions for complex problems.

“I reflect about my decision every so often,” Huske said of coming to the U.S. “It was just the best decision that I’ve ever made. I’m just so lucky to have been able to come to the States and meet my husband and have my daughter.

“When I gave birth to her, I was 41. I didn’t expect that she would be anything special in terms of talents. I was hoping that she would be an average girl, just be healthy and get a ‘B’ in her classes. That’s my expectation for her, and she exceeded my expectations in so many ways. She’s smart and capable and strong. I’m very happy with the way she turned out, and I’m very proud of her. I’m so lucky.”

There’s that word again — lucky. But to get to this point in her life, this Virginia Tech alumna also is persistent and courageous. These are the adjectives that seem most appropriate to describe her.

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