Ally McHugh representing Penn State in Asia

After (literally) hitting a wall, McHugh is on her way to becoming one of the country’s top collegiate swimmers.

Ally McHugh, a Little Flower High School graduate, will represent Penn State in Taipei City, Taiwan, beginning Sunday. PHOTO: PENN STATE ATHLETICS

Last year was one Ally McHugh would like to forget.

This year has been unforgettable.

McHugh, a Little Flower High School grad, is headed into her junior year at Penn State University. Her rookie year at college started off promising, but then she hit the wall.

Literally.

“It was just bad luck, I was swimming and I didn’t have my (goggles) on and I banged my head on (the side of the pool),” McHugh said. “So I missed time there and then I had appendicitis and I missed more time. I couldn’t swim for three or four weeks because after the surgery it got infected and I had to stay out of the water.

“I was lucky because my mom came up and my teammates helped take care of me. It was hard getting back, but I had a lot of people who helped me get back into it. I worked hard, but I wasn’t alone.”

Those who helped her recover can be quite proud because they also helped her become one of the top swimmers in the country.

McHugh has been named to the U.S. roster for the World University Games, which will take place in Taipei City, Taiwan, later this month.

She earned the right to compete in the 400-meter individual medley by finishing top four at the U.S. Phillips 66 Nationals earlier in the summer.

“I had to get a passport, it’s my first time leaving the country,” said McHugh, who will compete on Sunday, the first day of the event. “I think the reason I’m doing so well is because the coaches told me that I can do this. I think having more confidence is the reason. The coaches make sure I had the confidence in my abilities, and that pushes you.

“This year, I dropped a few seconds in the 400 I.M. I dropped a lot of time, and I think most of it has to do with being pushed. I’m doing things I didn’t expect to do. That’s because of my coaches and my teammates.”

It also has a lot to do with the work she puts in, both in the pool and out of it.

Prior to qualifying for the games, McHugh planned on spending her summer back in Philly, but once she got the invite, plans changed. She spent her summer in Happy Valley, working out six days a week.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she spends about three hours a day in the pool, practicing for about two hours in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon.

On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, she works hard in the pool in the morning and then hits the weight room.

“I think my mom is upset because I’m now not going to be able to come home until Thanksgiving, but she understands,” McHugh said. “This definitely has been my focus this summer. I have time to relax and hang out with my friends, but we’re training together.”

McHugh’s metamorphosis into one of the best swimmers in the nation has been pretty remarkable, but she’s always been a good swimmer.

She got her start when she was 5, and she then swam for her grade school, St. Jerome. After excelling at the grade school level, she moved on to swim for a club team in Lower Moreland. Then she went to Little Flower, where she was the top swimmer in the Catholic League. She also led the Sentinels to a Catholic League championship.

During her days at Little Flower, instead of practicing with her teammates, she would head to Penn Charter to work out with fellow elite swimmers.

“Whenever I’m home and need to train, I still go there,” McHugh said. “When I was there, I got my name up for having the record in the distance freestyle at the pool, so it’s cool to go there and see my name up there.”

That’s something she will probably get used to seeing over the next couple of years. Making the prestigious World University Games means McHugh is one of the best collegiate swimmers in the country, so she’s on her way to being a major player in college swimming.

“This whole thing has given me more confidence,” McHugh said. “I’m going to meet a lot of swimmers on this trip, so I’ll know them when we’re swimming in the Big Ten championship. I think it will be fun, just being out there with great swimmers. I’m swimming on the first day, so after I’m done, I think I’ll just be the biggest USA swimming fan out there.”

McHugh has big plans for her career.

While she’s not making any commitments, this summer’s success could help her decide to try to make Team USA for the 2020 Olympics. Her swimming career beyond that will depend on how the next three years play out.

But she also has a great life after swimming planned, so she’s working just as hard in the classroom as she is in the pool.

“I don’t know if I want to become a physician’s assistant or go to nursing school,” said McHugh, who is majoring in biobehavioral health. “I think it’s very interesting to learn what I’m learning. I love it. My school work helps keep me relaxed, it calms me down. Plus, it’s good to learn how my mind and body work together. I think it’s helped my swimming.” ••