Ally McHugh has been in the water so long that feeling dry has almost become a foreign concept.
McHugh is set to begin her junior year at Little Flower, where she will soon begin her third season with the varsity swim team. But she’s been a swimmer before high school … way before, for that matter.
According to her mom, Andrea, Ally began taking swim lessons at the Northeast Community Center when she was all but a year old. The family got Ally private lessons at age 3, and she swam for St. Jerome from kindergarten through eighth grade. By the time she was 8, McHugh was already swimming at the club level; at 9, she became a registered USA swimmer, participating in the sport all year round, something else she continues to maintain, save for a three-week break she allows herself every August.
Swimming, quite literally, is all she’s ever known.
“When you start something so young, it’s just for fun at first,” McHugh said. “But over the years, like anything you do so much, you just grow to love everything about it. Competing in the pool is such an adrenaline rush, and it’s so much fun being in that water pushing myself as hard and as far as I can. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it.”
When looking at her accomplishments to date, it’s safe to say all of McHugh’s hard work has paid off.
According to Little Flower head swimming coach Sean Clothier, McHugh already holds 10 Little Flower swimming records — seven individual, three relay — in just two seasons of work. She was voted the team’s most valuable player a season ago, and because of her strong showing in the Catholic League championships the last two years, she’s qualified to swim in the PIAA District 12 meet. She holds District 12 records in the 100 and 200 breaststroke as well as the 100 freestyle. True to her style, McHugh didn’t just show up to the PIAA state meet; instead, she finished in the top 10 in two events: the 200 individual medley (ninth place) and the 500 freestyle (10th place). She enters her junior year ranked third in the state in the 500 freestyle and sixth in the 200 individual medley.
In addition to being awarded All-Catholic and All-State honors for her accomplishments in the pool, McHugh, an A student at Little Flower, earned Scholastic All-American honors from both USA Swimming and the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association. The high point of this past summer was qualifying for the Speedo Junior Nationals Meet, held in Irvine, Calif., a competition Clothier called “one of the most prestigious meets in the country.”
With all the success she’s already gained, McHugh was asked what continues to motivate her in the swimming pool.
“I’d say just always trying to get to that next level, always pushing myself harder to get to the bigger meets,” she said. “My coaches push me hard, and my mom and my family do the same. Between that and my teammates always cheering me on, I’d say everyone around me motivates me to keep going. I’ve got a great support system.”
As if she doesn’t already have enough going on with Little Flower commitments both in the pool and classroom, McHugh is involved with the Suburban Seahawks, an elite USA Swimming club team located in Newtown Square. Clothier referred to it as “the premier club team in the area,” while Andrea McHugh said club responsibilities have McHugh training six days a week, two hours a day for the entire year, save for her three-week August break. Her coach with the Seahawks, Charlie Kennedy, is known for training Haverford Township’s Brendan Hansen, who won gold (4x100 medley relay) and bronze (100 breaststroke) medals for the United States in the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
Knowing she is learning from such an accomplished coach only pushes McHugh further.
“Swimming for Suburban is very intense, but Charlie is such a fantastic coach,” she said. “He can look at your strokes and know just how to tweak them to make you better, and overall he keeps you physically fit and mentally ready for big meets. He really pushes us to be the best we can be, but he also never yells at practice and is a great storyteller. I’ve only trained with him for a year, but I feel like I’ve known him for awhile. He’s very kind of humble, and he can tell you stories and find a way to apply your own strokes into those stories.”
McHugh admitted that between school and swimming, she doesn’t have much of a social life even though she tries to make as much time for her friends as she can. However, she wouldn’t trade it away, not Little Flower or the Seahawks, stating, “Both are so very important to me that I would never pick one over the other.”
Though she’s only entering her junior year, McHugh has her sights set on swimming at the Division-I level in college. Knowing whom her club coach is, she’s thought about the Olympics, saying, “It’s always a goal, but if it doesn’t happen then it doesn’t happen. It’s very hard and very few people make it there, but it’s a nice goal to have. I’ll work as hard as I can to get as close as I can.”
Most of all, McHugh raved about the structure and stability that being a swimmer has provided her, in both the physical and mental arenas. It’s allowed her to set goals for herself and then try to achieve them, and for McHugh, there’s no better way to see what you’re really made of than to jump in the pool and see where it takes her.
She described herself as more of a distance swimmer who excels in breaststroke more so than any other, but that this coming year she was looking to improve her game across the board in all facets and strokes.
“Swimming, it’s a very hard sport,” she said. “Most people look at it and think they can do it and it’s not that difficult, and I think they don’t realize how much it takes. When you’re in the pool, it’s a whole other world of possibilities. It might not be one of the most popular sports, but it is one of the best.
“The real great thing is you can get into it anytime in life, whether you were a baby like me or are a little older. It’s fun … it’s like being at home. I’m in it so much that my second home really is the pool. It takes a lot of free time, but isn’t it worth it to push yourself and reach the goals you set? It makes you so happy and proud when you get there.” ••