By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, August 23, 2018
Ally McHugh has learned several valuable lessons in and out of the water during her three years at Penn State.
Among them has been the importance of swimming her own race and not allowing the actions of her competitors to dictate her own.
That lesson paid major dividends a few weeks ago during Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Irvine, Calif.
Behind leaders Brooke Forde and Leah Smith through the first 350 meters of the 400 individual medley, McHugh held true to her own race strategy and came on full-bore over the final 50 meters to out-touch Forde for her first National Championship. It was also Penn State’s first swimming National Championship for a woman.
Despite wanting to keep pace with her competitors, McHugh said she stuck to the game plan she and her coach, Tim Murphy, put together pre-race and came away victorious.
She always knew she’d be able to make up ground over the last 50. It’s how she swims.
“(If you watched the race), you probably noticed the look of complete relief and surprise on my face at the wall,” said McHugh, who starts her senior season in Happy Valley this fall. “I usually stay with everyone during the butterfly, find myself behind in the backstroke and make my move in the breaststroke and freestyle, but I found myself farther back than I like to be.”
It wasn’t long ago, however, that McHugh said she would have abandoned her race strategy to keep up with the leader from the start of the race – often to her own detriment.
But through working with her coaches – and gaining more confidence and experience with each race – McHugh said she quickly realized the importance of swimming for herself and not for others.
“Thanks to my distance training (she also excels in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyles and was the runner-up in the 1650 free at NCAAs this year), I knew I still had a lot left in the freestyle (at the end of the race),” said McHugh, who finished second in the 1500 free and fourth in the 800 free at Phillips 66 Nationals.
“Through the first 350 meters, I breathed facing the pack, but for the last 50, I breathed facing away so I couldn’t really tell where we were except for seeing my coach freaking out on deck. That’s why when I just out-touched Brooke, I was a bit unsure of the outcome until I saw the scoreboard. It means a lot to me to swim my own race and help take Penn State swimming to the National level at the same time.”
Confidence is the area where McHugh said she’s experienced the most growth since she first arrived at State College her freshman year.
A water baby who learned to float by age one and took private lessons as a 3-year-old, McHugh wasn’t highly recruited out of her Philadelphia-area high school.
Her choices were narrowed to Indiana and Penn State, and with State College just a few hours away and the program on the rise – along with the feeling of family she experienced during her visit – she said she knew it was the place for her.
“I just felt at home at Penn State – from the coaches to the swimmers to the campus – and it’s still close enough to visit home when I can,” she said. “It’s been a great three years. I can’t believe it’s coming to a close, but I’m looking forward to continuing to swim leading up to 2020 Trials and the Olympics.”
McHugh put U.S. and world swimmers on notice with her win at Phillips 66 Nationals and strong showing at Pan Pacific Championships two weeks ago.
Although she didn’t medal, she did make the finals of the 400 freestyle and left Tokyo – site of the next Olympics – with a new perspective, more top-level racing experience and a battle plan for the next two years.
After she graduates with her bachelor’s degree in bio behavioral health next May, she intends to move to Madison, Wisc., to train with former Penn State assistant coach Eric Posegay, now an assistant with the Badgers.
Ultimately, she wants to continue her education toward earning her MSN in nursing, but that will most likely have to wait until after 2020 – with her ultimate goal of becoming an Olympian a stronger possibility than ever before.
“The past couple of years have largely been about putting in the work to set myself up for 2020; beyond that, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said McHugh, who won silver in the 400 IM last summer at the 2017 World University Games.
“This year has been a building year for next year when I can focus on training for 13-14 months before 2020 Trials. Moving to Wisconsin and training with Eric is part of that plan.”
And while her love for the sport hasn’t waned since she blew those first few underwater bubbles as a baby, her reason and direction for training and swimming at the highest levels have certainly found new meaning and purpose.
“When I was a kid, I swam because it was fun and it was always great to get into a cold pool in the hot summer,” she said. “But as I’ve gotten older, that’s changed.
“Now, it’s about putting in the hard work during training and seeing that hard work pay off in competition. It’s also about the many relationships I’ve built in the sport. I still love it, and it’s still fun for me, but just for different reasons.”