Brendan McHugh suspected his competitive swimming career was finished.

He was a 22-year-old Penn graduate. He was preparing to enter law school at Washington and Lee University.

He had done well at the 2012 Olympic trials - 10th in the 100-meter breaststroke, 16th in the 200-meter breaststroke - but it wasn't as if he had just missed making the U.S. team.

He also had a broken arm, courtesy of a pickup basketball game.

"I wasn't sure, but I was thinking I might be done," said McHugh, who stunned the swimming world Aug. 8, setting a United States Open record with a time of 27.10 seconds and winning the 50-meter breaststroke at the national championships in Irvine, Calif.

Lots of things turned McHugh from a top Ivy League swimmer on the fringe of the national scene into the sport's newest star: a late growth spurt, hard work in the pool and weight room, terrific time management, more specialized training.

But it's possible the national swimming world never would have heard another word about McHugh if not for a whim in the fall of 2012, when he walked into the office of Washington and Lee coach Kami Gardner with a cast on his arm and volunteered to serve as an assistant.

"I wasn't sure he could do it," Gardner said. "I knew the kind of time constraints that he would have as a law student. But I said, 'OK, come on back and we'll give it a go.' "

McHugh said he needed a diversion from the "hell" of his first year as a law student. He also wasn't quite ready to stop hanging around the pool deck, sniffing the chlorine and talking tapers with other swimmers.

Before long, he was asking Gardner if he could get in the water with her athletes. And it didn't take long before he knew he wasn't ready to put aside his passion to become one of the nation's best swimmers.

"I had been out of the pool for six months, which was the longest time for me since I was 7 years old," the 24-year-old McHugh said this past week. "It gets in your blood. I wanted to get back out there."

Somehow over the next 18 months - while he was making his way through his first two years of law school and serving as an intern for two summers at Philadelphia firms and coaching Division III athletes and lifting weights in the family garage with his younger brothers and sneaking in swims at pools in three states - McHugh developed into an athlete capable of setting a national record and capturing a national title.

A 24-year-old emerging from the shadows of the sport to set a U.S. Open record? That just doesn't happen in swimming.

"It's unfounded in the swim world," said Matt Sprang, McHugh's coach at the Greater Philadelphia Aquatic Club, which is based at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology in Sewell, Gloucester County. "Swimmers don't come on this late. But his body took a little longer."

Said Penn assistant coach Dan Schupsky: "He's at nationals and [television commentator] Rowdy Gaines is going, 'Who is this guy? He's 24. He went to Penn. Who is he?' "

McHugh, who lives in Sickerville, Camden County, was around 6-foot-3, 175 pounds as a senior at St. Augustine Prep. Now he's around 6-5, 220, with about 20 of those pounds the result of intense weight training over the last two years.

McHugh's gains in size and strength have been instrumental to his success. But those around him rave at McHugh's intelligence and focus and marvel at his ability to juggle the demands of law school while training to excel at the national level.

"Incredible dedication," Gardner said of McHugh.

Said Schupsky, who worked with McHugh on the breaststroke: "He just has laser-like focus."

McHugh's family situation also has been a source of his success, as he has been driven both to honor his late father and to set an example for his four younger siblings.

McHugh was 15 when his father, Patrick, died of cancer. He said he felt an immediate responsibility to help his mother, Nancy, in raising his brothers Dillon, now 21, and Colin, 17, as well as his sisters Shannon, 20, and Camryn, 14.

"I had to grow up a lot earlier than other kids. I'm not sure how it directly impacted me," he said of the loss of his father. "I know I was a lot more conscious of things. I could be at a party and I was aware that I could screw up my future and there was nobody to bail me out."

McHugh said he was determined to set an example, both as an athlete and a student. All of his siblings have been top students. Dillon is entering his senior year at Penn and is a member of the swim team. Shannon is entering her junior year at Villanova.

Colin is entering his senior year at St. Augustine. He's a top swimmer - "Faster than I was in high school," Brendan said - and considering Penn State and Penn, among other colleges.

Camyrn, who also is a swimmer, is scheduled to begin her freshman year at Gloucester Catholic in September.

"We've all tried to follow in his footsteps," Dillon McHugh said of his older brother. "He's the authority in the family. We all look up to him."

Brendan McHugh remembers giving Dillon advice when his younger brother was 14 or 15.

"I'm 18 and he's looking to me for answers and I don't know the answers," Brendan McHugh said. "But I learned that people follow your actions more than your words."

McHugh earned a bachelor's degree from Penn with a dual major: classical studies, with a concentration in Latin, and science, technology and society, with a concentration in energy and environment.

He was an academic all-American and the first Quakers swimmer in nearly 20 years to compete in the NCAA Division I championships.

"He probably was the most driven, focused athlete I've ever coached," Schupsky said of McHugh. "Chasing a dream with an open heart, that's his specialty."

McHugh prepared for the national championships while interning this summer with Drinker, Biddle & Reath, one of Philadelphia's largest and most prestigious law firms.

His daily routine: two-hour workout at 6:30 a.m., full work day at the firm, then another two-hour training session at night, either in the pool or weight room. He did that six days a week, with Sundays off.

"He's been training around his life - going to law school, interning in the summer," Sprang said. "Wait until he dedicates a full year to just training."

McHugh finished his internship in late July. About a week later, he was on the top step of the podium as a national champion, with a national record to boot.

His time was the fastest ever on American soil. It also beat his previous best in the event of 28.23 by more than a second.

"It was very cool," McHugh said. "I was getting texts from kids I raced against in high school. I was like, 'I didn't think they even liked me.' "

McHugh plans to finish law school in May, then take off a year to focus on preparing for the 2016 Olympic trials. He will compete for the U.S. team at the world championships in Kazan, Russia, in July.

Because the 50-meter breaststroke isn't an Olympic sport, McHugh will focus on the 100- and 200-meter events. He believes his best races are ahead of him.

"Every kid in the pool dreams of being an Olympic swimmer," McHugh said. "That's real for me now. I feel like I have a lot of potential that still is not tapped."

@PhilAnastasia

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