IRVINE, Calif. – Although Ally McHugh is known as a distance freestyler, she also trains the other strokes because, she said, “I have this in my back pocket.”
“This” is the 400-meter individual medley, and in the biggest upset so far at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships, McHugh won the event Friday for her first national title.
She sliced nearly 5 seconds off her personal best – set in the morning preliminaries – and overcame a .45-second deficit in the final 50 meters to overtake Brooke Forde and defending champion Leah Smith in a dramatic finish.
McHugh touched at 4 minutes, 34.80 seconds, with Forde coming in second at 4:35.09, a personal best by more than 4 seconds.
“I don’t know that any of us were expecting this,” said Forde, who made her first senior international team by qualifying for next month’s Pan Pacific Swimming Championships.
Melanie Margalis and Smith, both Olympic gold medalists in the 4x200-meter freestyle, were third and fourth in the race, part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
“I was shocked,” said McHugh, 21, who was fourth last year in the 400 IM and the 1,500 freestyle at nationals. “I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it and I’m just so happy I can’t even explain it.”
Her victory is easier to explain. Although she was sixth at 150 meters – with the butterfly and half of the backstroke behind her – McHugh moved into second behind Forde with the last leg, freestyle, to go. At 150 meters, Smith had moved into second, but McHugh had a blistering 29.86-second final 50 to secure the win.
“I was like, ‘There’s going to be a million people fighting for first,’” McHugh said. “I was just kind of focusing on my last 100. I usually bring it home pretty strong and I have that confidence in the back of my mind, so I just put my head down and kicked really hard.”
She had already demonstrated her finishing strength in the 800-meter freestyle Wednesday. Although McHugh finished fourth in the event won by Katie Ledecky, she had the fastest splits in each of the last three 50s.
McHugh became the first female athlete from Penn State to win a national swimming title. She is a rising senior majoring in bio-behavioral health and is planning to do an accelerated nursing program when she is finished swimming.
With this title, McHugh’s prospects for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are suddenly much more promising.
She wasn’t recruited by the swimming powerhouses out of high school but has seen tremendous improvement in college.
McHugh has the distinction of winning a national title before an NCAA title, with her best collegiate finish second in the 1,650-yard freestyle this year.
“Penn State has been the place where I’ve kind of come out of my shell and really done so well,” said McHugh, “so I think my college swimming has definitely helped me grow as an athlete. I’m really excited to win a national title for them and get their name out there and say that we’re good. We just have awesome training, awesome coaches and an awesome support system.
“The coaches just have this amazing confidence in me and I think it’s just helped me bring that out in myself.”
McHugh swam in her first international meet at the World University Games in Chinese Taipei, earning the silver medal in the 400 IM.
“That was kind of like a glimpse into everything and was really eye-opening,” she said. “It helped me get into the mindset where I can do this. I can be at this level.”
Now McHugh has added her name to a list of national champions that includes Olympians Donna de Varona, Janet Evans and Summer Sanders.
“It’s unbelievable to even think of that,” McHugh said. “All those swimmers are amazing that have come before me and it’s just awesome to be amongst those names.
“I can’t stop smiling.”