Senior Brendan McHugh is doing what only one other Penn men’s swimmer has ever done before.
Beginning Thursday, McHugh will compete in the NCAA men’s swimming championships in Seattle, Wash. Two Penn swimmers have qualified before him, but only one — Jeff Brown, in 1996 — competed. Brown’s best finish was 22nd in the 500 freestyle.
But McHugh, who has two Ivy titles and four All-Ivy nods to his name, is seeded 13th in the 100 breaststroke, just over a second behind top-seeded Kevin Cordes from Arizona. McHugh is also swimming the 200 breast and 200 individual medley.
He swims the IM Thursday, 100 breast Friday and 200 breast Saturday.
The senior is going into the meet with a confident attitude and a serious agenda. Above all, his goal is to win the 100 breast.
“If I don’t enter with that attitude, it’s not the right attitude to have,” McHugh said.
Jumping 12 spots to national champion would require a major time drop and maybe even a stroke of fate, so his minimum goal is to break through the top eight to become All-American.
Entering the meet with a time of 53.04, a Penn school record, assistant coach Dan Schupsky expects McHugh to finish in the 51.9-52.3 range.
A time under 52 seconds — not outside the realm of possibility with rest, shaving and adrenaline — would put McHugh in good company with just six other swimmers in world history to break that barrier.
He is up against Princeton’s Jonathan Christensen, who broke McHugh’s Ivy record at league championships this year. Christensen is seeded eighth, two tenths of a second faster than McHugh.
“It’s been my goal since pretty much my freshman year,” McHugh said of his first and only trip to NCAAs. “It’s an honor to go, but I want to do some damage there … I’m not content.”
A strong performance this weekend would culminate an impressive Penn career by an extraordinary swimmer. Schupsky called McHugh a “1-in-20 year swimmer” for the Quakers, and said “he could swim anywhere in the country.”
Like many Penn athletes, McHugh chose the Quakers for the balance between academics and athletics. He turned down opportunities to swim at bigger programs, which has not come without sacrifice.
While the Ivy League has continued to improve its national success in swimming — 12 from the Ancient Eight are competing this weekend — McHugh likely would have made NCAAs much sooner in his career on a relay team at a bigger program. Additionally, he has not had a training partner at Penn to push him constantly at practice.
“Sometimes I’ll have to say … ‘You’ve gotta think about the guys at Cal, at Arizona … that guy down in Texas,’” Schupsky said. “You’ve gotta keep a national perspective.”
McHugh said a lot of his teammates can and do push him in practice, but if he ever slacks off, Schupsky is there on the pool deck to keep him in check.
“If I do one thing wrong,” McHugh said, “he’s keeping me in line.”
These days, Schupsky doesn’t have to do much to hone McHugh’s focus. “We just have an understanding that when I do breaststroke, there’s no goofing around, no messing around,” McHugh said.
Still, McHugh thrives off the energy his coaches exude, whether it’s pushing him to go faster or jumping up and down during a good swim.
“I could never swim for a coach that if I’m doing well, wouldn’t be running up and down the sidelines of the pool,” McHugh said. “That’s the kind of coach that I like, and that’s one of the things that I really like about [coach Mike] Schnur.”
This weekend, both Schupsky and Schnur will be running down the length of the pool deck as McHugh swims the races of his life.
But it won’t be the South Jersey native’s last swims. He has qualified for the Olympic Trials in late June, and the top two swimmers from each event represent the United States in the Olympics.
If he does well at Trials, his career could last another four years. “If I get top eight at Trials, which is my goal, I’ll probably still swim after college,” McHugh said.
It’s a fun idea he and his coaches are dreaming about for the future, but now McHugh is focused on NCAAs.
He has history to make, and records to re-write.