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Brendan McHugh (right), a 2012 Penn grad, is now a graduate student and assistant swimming coach at the University. Will he be an Olympian, too?

Credit: Alex Fisher

Sometimes everyone just needs a little break. Just ask former Penn swimming superstar Brendan McHugh.

McHugh, now four years removed from his college career, is in the books as one of Penn swimming’s finest performers. By the time he graduated in 2012, his name appeared 11 times on Sheerr Pool’s record board, with two first team All-Ivy distinctions, an Ivy record in the 100-yard breast and honorable mention All-America honors as icing on the cake. Two of his team records, in the 100 and 200-yard breaststrokes, still stand to this day.

Although he and coach Mike Schnur had discussed the possibility of a professional swimming career, McHugh decided to go a more practical route following graduation. After a solid performance at the 2012 Olympic Trials where he finished 10th in the 100-meter breast and 16th in the 200, the combination of a broken wrist and an acceptance to the Washington and Lee School of Law spurred McHugh’s wholehearted commitment to his other dream of becoming a lawyer.

But soon, he discovered that his return to the grind of school and study was missing a key ingredient. Not long after his arrival on campus, located in Lexington, Va., he began working as a volunteer assistant coach for the Generals’ swim team and was back in the pool before he knew it.

“I just missed it,” McHugh said. “I continued to swim and to swim well. Mike had actually planted the idea in my mind and I guess I couldn’t give it up.”

McHugh, with a dual focus of studying and swimming, embarked on a grueling training regimen that focused on bulk rather than technique. After a collegiate career that saw him spread very thin across the spectrum of swimming events, he prioritized shorter races that rely more on raw speed than endurance.

“As you get older, you need to change your workout strategy,” Schnur commented. “In law school, he was doing a lot of lifting and trying to get bigger.”

The results paid off, as McHugh stunned the American swimming scene by submitting a dominant performance in the 50-meter breast at the 2014 National Championships. In preliminary heats, McHugh set a U.S. Open record with a time of 27.10 and dropped an almost-as-blistering 27.24 in the final to win the event. With his stellar swim, McHugh automatically qualified for the FINA World Championships — a rarity for a 24-year old operating on the fringes of the sport.

It was a meteoric rise, one that cemented his status as an elite American swimmer and ushered in a new chapter of his athletic career.

In the present, however, McHugh views these achievements — which include an 18th-place finish in the 50 breast at Worlds in Kazan, Russia — as simple building blocks towards a larger goal.

Over the past few months, he has returned to his aquatic roots as a volunteer assistant coach for Penn swimming, a role which has allowed him to train under his former coach and defer a career in law in favor of pursuing loftier athletic ambitions.

With national and international competition under his belt, McHugh has set his sights on Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympic Trials, which take place from June 26 to July 3.

He will have his work cut out for him, however, as his best event, the 50 breast, is not included on the Olympic schedule of races. Instead, McHugh will concentrate on the 100 breast, a race that combines both speed and endurance, a combination that can be hard to regain so many years removed from college training.

“I’ve had an interesting run-around. In high school, I was better at the 200 breaststroke. It was a lot longer and I had no speed. When I first got to Penn and through my graduation, I was probably best at the 100. But in law school, with not much time to train, with lifting a lot and with me getting older, the 50 was a lot easier to train for,” McHugh reflected.

“But Mike loves to focus on swimming a lot, on getting in a lot of laps. That’s going to help me a lot. Training recently has probably been the most intense of my life. And, hopefully, I can use the speed that I have and that no one else in America does. The strategy is to go out and see if anyone can catch me.”

Schnur reiterated that McHugh’s preparation is designed to transform him into a leaner, more efficient swimmer, one capable of displaying both Olympic pace and Olympic stamina.

“After he got a lot bigger in law school, some of our tasks over the past four or five months have actually been to get him smaller,” Schnur said. “Long-course [meters] competition in the Olympics is far more difficult than the short-course [yards], and we discovered after the first semester that he was a little big, a little heavy. So over the past two months we’ve got him to slim down and he’s been swimming faster.”

Despite the intensity of his training, however, McHugh has not lost sight of a more lifelong desire. Completing his degree and pursuing summer internships at law firms strengthened his conviction in pursuing a legal career. In fact, McHugh, recently stepped back from training to study for the bar examination.

And, while McHugh’s return to Penn’s campus can be seen as one of purely personal motivation, there’s an element of family drawing him back too. McHugh’s youngest brother, Colin, is currently a freshman on the team and is following in the footsteps of his older brother as a breaststroke standout. The middle McHugh brother, Dillon, also swam for Penn and graduated in 2015.

Schnur insists that the eldest McHugh’s presence has been greatly beneficial to the current Quakers’ roster.

“I hope they get some inspiration from him. I hope the guys appreciate seeing a 25-year-old combine full-time swimming with his legal ambitions,” said Schnur. “To see a guy who gave up a first-year associate’s salary at a major law firm for swimming shows these guys what’s possible. When you go to a school like Penn, you’re completely unlimited in your life. You can do anything you set out to do.”

Firmly entrenched in both the athletic and professional world, McHugh will look to make waves in and out of the pool in the months to come.

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