The Little Flower grad proved she is one of the best swimmers nationwide — and now has a chance to show she’s best in the world.
Ally McHugh might not return to Philadelphia that much, but she does a heck of a job representing it.
McHugh, a Little Flower High School grad, hasn’t been home since Christmas because the Penn State University senior is swimming at the highest level possible.
This weekend, she proved to be the best in the United States and now she has the chance to show she’s tops in the world.
McHugh cut about five seconds off her personal best to win the 400 individual medley to emerge victorious in the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships in Irvine, California on Friday night. It was the start of a great weekend that saw her take second in the 1,500-meter freestyle, fourth in the 800 free and 14th in the 400-meter free. In each event, she established a personal record, although nothing was as dramatic as her improvement in the race she won.
“I couldn’t really see anyone until I got to the free,” McHugh said. “You don’t really know how you’re doing. I just looked over, then put my head down and went as hard as I could.”
McHugh’s time was the sixth-fastest time by a United States swimmer, and by virtue of her finish, she qualified for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo, which will be held Aug. 8 to 13. It marked the first time in Penn State history a Nittany Lion earned a first-place finish at nationals.
The result was the culmination of a lot of hard work McHugh has put in since she started swimming.
But it doesn’t get any easier from here.
This week, she’ll spend time training hard in California and then she’ll fly to Japan. After the competition, she’ll arrive home in Philly for a quick visit, and then it’s back to Penn State for the fall semester.
“I haven’t been home much at all, maybe at Christmas,” McHugh said. “But my mom and my brother came out here a few times for visits, so that helped me see them. It’s hard to do anything when you’re putting in 20 hours a week swimming.”
McHugh has had to make many sacrifices to get where she is today.
The Biobehavioral Health major went into Penn State as a nursing major, but because of her packed schedule, she was unable to fulfill the requirements needed to become a registered nurse, so she switched.
The goal is to still become a nurse, and she’s doing all the prepwork now to make sure she’s ready when her swimming career is over.
“You learn a lot about the body, it’s a major I think a lot of college athletes like to take because you can learn a lot,” the Fox Chase resident said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of advanced sciences, and a lot of the classes overlap and are requirements for nursing, so when I’m done swimming, I can go to an accelerated program.
“It’s tough juggling school and swimming, it takes a lot of time and you have to not do some things because you don’t have time, but both are very important to me.”
Swimming has been McHugh’s passion since she was growing up. And like all swimmers, her wildest dreams included her getting a spot on Team USA. For many, it’s a far-fetched fantasy, but now for McHugh, it’s a feat she is on pace to do. There’s still a lot of work to be done before 2020, but she’s on the right path.
“I think every swimmer when they’re a kid dreams about it,” McHugh. “Anyone who takes the sport seriously wants to make it. I never thought it would be possible, but I know if I keep working, it could happen.”
McHugh is back at top form, something she wasn’t a few years ago.
During her freshman year, McHugh battled a concussion and, shortly after she returned, an appendicitis that wiped out most of her season.
Missing time in swimming is tough because the sport requires incredible endurance and maintaining a strict workout, so the injuries came at an inopportune time.
But now those days are behind her.
“It was really hard because I knew I’d have to get in shape to get back,” McHugh said. “After I came back, I didn’t have any time expectations, I just knew I had to get better. It took some time, but I feel great now.”
McHugh went through a lot to become one of the top swimmers in the nation, but she’s quick to hand out credit. She loves to represent Little Flower, she loves to represent Philadelphia and she’s very happy to do it for Penn State.
“My coach has been great at helping me and pushing me,” McHugh said. “I like to look at myself as an underdog, and I have to earn everything I get. There are so many great swimmers out there, I feel like an underdog.”
Just like the Eagles when they became Super Bowl champions.
But unlike the Eagles, she isn’t taking a lot of time to savor the success.
Right now, McHugh is at the top of the mountain, but she knows staying there will be just as hard.
“I was so happy after winning, but it was pretty crazy,” McHugh said. “I got so many text messages and phone calls from home. Everyone was so great. Philly was where it all started and where I put in a lot of work. All the work is definitely worth it.