Max McHugh never saw it coming. When he joined the Gophers men's swimming team in 2018, the goals he wrote down were modest, to say the least: Make the travel team, go on a training trip to Hawaii, do well at the Big Ten tournament.

"As far as the NCAAs, I didn't have any goals," McHugh said. "I really didn't come in with many expectations."

With three NCAA titles so far — and perhaps more coming at this week's NCAA men's swimming and diving championships, in his home pool — it's obvious McHugh underestimated himself. The fifth-year senior from Sturgeon Bay, Wis., will end his career as one of the greatest swimmers the U has ever produced.

His humble list of hopes has been replaced by a long ledger of achievements, many of them Gophers chart-toppers. McHugh's seven individual Big Ten championships are the most in program history. He holds school records in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke and was the first athlete to be unanimously selected as Big Ten swimmer of the year in 2021.

At the NCAA championships, which run Wednesday through Saturday at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center, McHugh is the No. 2 seed in Friday's 100 breaststroke and the No. 3 seed in Saturday's 200 breast. A fourth title would tie him with Steve Jackman, a Gophers standout in the 1960s, for the most individual NCAA championships in program history.

"It's hard to put into words what he's done," Gophers coach Kelly Kremer said. "And with Max, it's about more than times and placings and points. You want your best swimmer to be your hardest worker, and he's done that. He's a superstar for us."

Though history is on the line at the NCAA meet, McHugh anticipates a bittersweet weekend. For the first time in his career, he will swim in a championship meet at his home pool, with eight teammates — the largest Gophers contingent at the NCAAs since 2019 — on the deck with him. He can't imagine a better way to end a college career that outpaced his biggest dreams.

"That goal list had everything I wanted to accomplish during my swimming career, and I think I completed the list by the end of my freshman year," said McHugh, who last month swept the Big Ten titles in the 100 and 200 breast for the third consecutive season. "In every sense, it's exceeded my expectations.

"When we talk about goals as a team, we think about it like a mountain. Winning an NCAA title was at the way, way top of my mountain. It seemed like it could only happen if everything went perfectly, and it did. It's crazy to think about."

McHugh already had a family legacy at the U. His brother, Conner, scored two top-10 NCAA finishes in his Gophers career, and Max hoped he could be just as good.

Kremer had bigger things in mind. He said McHugh was one of the top two or three breaststroke recruits in the country, with times that could score at the NCAA level. Before McHugh swam a lap with the Gophers, Kremer thought he had a chance to become the program's first NCAA men's swimming champ since 1964.

As a freshman, McHugh was the NCAA runner-up in the 200 breast and third in the 100 breast. After the 2020 NCAA championships were canceled because of COVID-19, he ended his junior year by sweeping the 100 and 200 breast at the Big Tens, then repeating that feat at the NCAA championships in school-record times.

With so many goals already checked off, McHugh found he needed to recalibrate before last year's senior season. He dedicated himself to making the Gophers a stronger team, then defended his NCAA title in the 100 breast in a school-record time of 49.90 seconds, the second-fastest time in NCAA history. He also was second in the 200, lowering his program-best mark to 1:48.76.

"Talk about leaving a program better than you found it," Kremer said. "He's maybe the best men's swimmer Minnesota has ever had, and he's also helped build the culture, leaving us a program that's really in great shape moving forward."

All of that makes McHugh extremely proud, even if he didn't see it coming.

"I'm sure I'll have some tears this weekend," he said. "It will be great to have my family here, and my teammates. I'm not really too concerned about results. I've done everything I've wanted to do."