Before Max McHugh ever put on a Gophers swim cap, his family name was inscribed on the list of record-holders at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center. The Gophers freshman used to sit in the bleachers there and cheer for his older brother, Conner, who set school marks in the breaststroke during a career that ended last spring.
Those records might not last long, which is OK with the siblings from Sturgeon Bay, Wis. This season, Max McHugh is the one ripping through the pool, becoming one of the fastest breaststroke swimmers in the country in his first college season. He enters this week’s Big Ten championships as the No. 2 seed in the 100-yard breaststroke, with a time of 51.73 seconds that has already qualified him for next month’s NCAA championships.
It’s been a fruitful beginning for a swimmer whose only ambitions this season were to get faster and gain experience.
“I came in with an open mind, with no goals or expectations,” McHugh said. “Freshman year can be difficult, transitioning from high school to college, and coming in with no set goals really relieved a lot of stress.”
So did the familiarity that comes with following a well-loved brother, one who is still by his side. Conner McHugh is working in the U’s athletic department and continues to train with the Gophers as he prepares for the 2020 Olympic trials.
That means daily races against Max, which has given both a brotherly boost.
“We both want the best for each other,” Conner said. “We’re brothers first and competitors second.
“To be able to push each other and support each other at the same time, it’s an interesting dynamic. I’m extremely proud of Max. To see what he’s doing, and for him to do it at the school I attended, it’s a really unique and special thing.”
Of the 14 awards given this winter for Big Ten freshman of the week, Max McHugh has earned seven. His season-best time of 51.73 in the 100 breast, set in November, is the sixth fastest this season in NCAA Division I.
The McHugh brothers grew up in a family that was one swimmer shy of a medley relay. Their parents, Mike and Mary Claire, swam at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Mary Claire was a backstroke specialist; Mike, a freestyler, coached the boys.
A coveted recruit, Max also was courted by perennial power Texas and by Arizona State coach Bob Bowman, who molded Michael Phelps. But family ties and familiarity won him over.
“Over those four years [of Conner’s career], I got to know the team and coaches very well,” McHugh said. “It’s close to home, Conner was here, and I had a lot of comfort. That made the transition very easy.”
As a high school senior, McHugh set a national public high school record in the 100-yard breaststroke, clocking a time of 51.62 seconds at Wisconsin’s Division 2 state meet. Gophers coach Kelly Kremer said McHugh is always thinking about his technique: the number of strokes he’s taking, how his head is positioned, where his hands are on the turn. He also has the toughness to handle a grueling stroke, and he can glide underwater for long stretches, an essential skill in the breaststroke.
“We’re fortunate that not only is Max incredibly talented, but that he loves the sport,” Kremer said. “Coming out of high school, he was already really special. And there are so many things he can get better at, because he’s still 18.”
Conner McHugh described Max as “mature beyond his years,” and Kremer compared him to another high-achieving Gophers freshman. Like wrestler Gable Steveson, Kremer said, McHugh has the strength, savvy and confidence to beat older, more experienced rivals.
He will get a significant test at the Big Ten meet, when he will face Indiana’s Ian Finnerty, the NCAA and U.S. record holder in the 100-yard breaststroke. Kremer and McHugh said they are not focusing on placement at the conference championships. Both are looking at the meet as a dress rehearsal for the NCAA championships, with a training plan engineered for McHugh to peak at the NCAA meet March 27-30 in Austin, Texas.
McHugh also is targeting next year’s Olympic trials, and he has his eye on breaking his brother’s school records. But with two big meets still ahead in his freshman year, he’s trying to keep a tight focus.
“I want to drop time. That’s the only goal right now,” he said. “The name of the game is to just keep making progress.”