During her final year at Penn State, Philly’s own Ally McHugh brought prestige to its nationally ranked, but far from elite, swimming program.

Last July, she became the school’s first female national champion in swimming, winning the gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley, in which she swims all four strokes in one race (the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle) at the 2018 USA Swimming Phillips 66 Nationals. At the NCAA Championships in March, she finished first in the 1650 freestyle, becoming the university’s first female swimmer to win an NCAA championship.

And this week, she’ll start down the next road to (hopeful) glory when she flies to Gwangju, South Korea, to compete at the FINA World Championships as a member of the U.S. National Team. Held July 21-28, FINA is similar in size, rigor, and international scope to the Olympic Trials, making it kind of dress rehearsal. The Olympic trials will be held in Omaha, Neb., next June and McHugh has already qualified.

And if McHugh can finish in the top two of her events at those trials, she’ll head to the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo next July.

“I don’t think I ever realized it would go this far, but I’m really happy,” says McHugh, 22, who graduated from Penn State in May and immediately moved to Madison, Wis., so she could train with her former PSU coach, Erik Posegay, who is now an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin. “I think having the right people in your corner is the reason why I still love swimming and why I do it.”

Swimmer Ally McHugh.
Swimmer Ally McHugh.

McHugh grew up one of three kids in a twin home in Northeast Philadelphia, and her love for the pool was nurtured at St. Jerome’s School, where she swam for the Stingrays at the Northeast Community Center; and at Little Flower Catholic High School, where she swam for the Sentinels, which she led to a Catholic League championship in 2014.

“She’s always had a wonderful attitude,” says her mother, Andrea McHugh, a St. Hubert High School grad who was a poolside fixture at her daughter’s competitions. “I’ve just always told her to have fun and enjoy the experience.”

Sean Clothier, Little Flower’s head swimming coach, followed McHugh’s times at St. Jerome’s and attended her meets. He saw McHugh as a natural athlete who could swim all four strokes with precision and aggression, and he zeroed in on her as his top Little Flower recruit in 2011.

“She was head and shoulders above the rest,” he said. “She had great times in every event and could do it all.”

Besides McHugh’s obvious swimming talent, Clothier emphasized that she is “the most humble swimmer I have ever had.”

“Ally is 10 times the person than she is a swimmer," Clothier said. “Great girl who did anything I asked of her from a team standpoint.”

When it was time to go to college in 2015, McHugh fielded several nice offers, including one from the United States Naval Academy. She accepted Penn State’s partial athletic scholarship and enrolled in its biobehavioral health program in the College of Health and Human Development.

In December of her freshman year at PSU, just as her swimming career was ramping up, she suffered a concussion after banging her head on the side of the pool during a practice. Then, in January, she underwent an emergency appendectomy, which sidelined her for a month and forced her to miss major college races that would’ve prepared her for the rigors of the upcoming 2016 U.S. Olympic trials, in which she competed.

She tanked in the trials, placing 68th in the 400-meter individual medley and 80th in the 200-meter individual medley.

She was crushed, but not for long: Her sophomore year brought a new distance coach, Posegay. He had risen to national prominence as the personal coach for Kutztown native G Ryan, who competed in the 2012 Olympic trials but fell just short of qualifying for the Olympic Games. Posegay then spent five years as an assistant at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, an elite swimming program that produced decorated Olympian Michael Phelps, before accepting an assistant position at Penn State.

“He came in right when I needed somebody to kick me in the butt and get my head back in the game," she said.

Penn State swimming coach Tim Murphy said he believes McHugh’s discipline and perseverance were integral in her journey to the NCAA championship in March.

“It’s not an easy thing to do," Murphy told Penn State’s sports news website, GoPSUsports.com. "She was patient in the beginning, but she was not going to give up and just kept getting faster. These things don’t just happen. She earned that and she deserved that. She had a lot of dedication and commitment, which she was able to put all together and stand on that podium representing Penn State.”

Her junior year, she made the U.S. National Team and started racing in international competitions. And in the summer between her junior and senior year, she reached the time thresholds needed to qualify again for Olympic trials.

“Making it twice to the trials is very difficult,” Clothier said. “Only the most elite swimmers can do that.”

Her best shots this time around are in the 400-meter individual medley and 1,650-meter freestyle.

“I don’t want to say she’s a lock to make it," Clothier said, "but I am going to learn certain Japanese phrases in case she makes Tokyo 2020.”

If she qualifies for the Olympic Games, she would be the first swimming Olympian from both Philadelphia’s Catholic League, established in 1963, and the Public League, which was founded in 1901. (In 2008, both leagues were brought under the District 12 banner as part of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, allowing swimmers from public and parochial schools to compete for the same state championships.)

And she would be the first Philadelphia-born female swimmer to compete in the Olympics since Eleanor Suzanne Daniel won a bronze medal in 200-meter butterfly at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. She had won a gold medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City swimming butterfly in the women’s 4x100-meter medley relay.

“Besides the Olympic Games, Olympic trials is the highest-level meet to qualify for and she did it twice,” says Andrea McHugh. “I don’t even care how she swims when she’s in Nebraska. It doesn’t matter to me. Just that she’s there and still having fun at that level, that’s what’s important.”

As for McHugh’s new life in Wisconsin, she says that moving by herself to another state has been an adjustment — finding an apartment and living completely alone, forming new relationships and being so far away from family. But she’s taking it in stride.

“It’s where I need to be in terms of my training and what’s best for swimming moving forward," she says.

Regarding the move, Andrea McHugh was mostly concerned about being so far away from her daughter. Even when Ally was at Penn State, at least mother and daughter were still in the same state.

"I’m used to being able to get in the car and drive three hours if I wanted to see her,” she says.

Still, she knows the move is crucial to her daughter’s athletic and personal development and will help move her closer to her Olympic dreams.

“I just tell her, ‘Keep going.’ "