McHugh overcomes adversity

Freshman Connor McHugh was the No. 1 recruit in Wisconsin his year.

Danny Chen

Having asthma can be a challenge for athletes who are trying to compete at a higher level.

But for Conner McHugh, a freshman standout, one specific swimming style allowed him to overcome that adversity: the breaststroke.

McHugh’s swimming career started early, though he didn’t like the sport initially.

“My parents actually met through college swimming,” McHugh said. “Through their positive experience, they had me try it out when I was 6 years old.”

It took two years before he decided to give it another shot.

When he did join, McHugh had to find a style that was suitable for his asthma symptoms.

His mother and father specialized in backstroke and freestyle, respectively, but neither style seemed to be the right choice for McHugh.

Then, the family looked at the breaststroke style, a technique that allows the swimmer’s head to be out of the water for a large portion of time.

For McHugh, it seemed like the perfect fit.

“Breaststroke allowed me to breathe as much as I wanted to,” McHugh said with a chuckle. “So I just kept with it.”

Developing as a swimmer

From ages 10 to 18, he swam for the Door County YMCA in his hometown of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., where his father coached him.

McHugh became a six-time YMCA national champion, and he currently holds Wisconsin breaststroke records in the 15-16 and 17-18 age groups.

During YMCA Long Course Nationals in Atlanta, he earned an Olympic Trial qualification at 16 years old.

“It was something that I have been working towards since I began swimming,” McHugh said. “I was happy to have the time trial standard at the age of 16.”

At the end of his high school career, CollegeSwimming.com ranked McHugh as the No. 1 recruit in the state of Wisconsin and 43rd overall in the class of 2014.

Head coach Kelly Kremer said he had taken notice of McHugh in the early process of recruiting.

“Conner’s been a really good and developing swimmer for a long time,” Kremer said. “So we knew of Conner quite some time ago. As [NCAA] rule allow, we contacted him when we could. I actually did a home visit with him really early in the process, again when the rule allowed.”

McHugh and his family made an unofficial visit to the University of Minnesota when he was a sophomore in high school.

In his senior year, he made official visits to Indiana, Tennessee and Minnesota.

At the end of that process, McHugh said Minnesota brought a perfect balance.

“I was at home,” McHugh said. “With teammates, with coaches and the school itself, it just felt that I wouldn’t have to transition as much compared to other schools.”

One teammate who helped him transition was then-junior Brandon Hatanaka.

“I hosted him when he came during his recruiting trip last spring,” Hatanaka said. “I loved having him. He has been a great addition to the team. And he is a great guy to be around.”

Finishing the season strong

McHugh is now finishing up his first regular season with the Gophers.

“I really enjoyed competing at home meets and having all the fans and families come and see me [swim],” McHugh said. “I also enjoyed swimming at NC State. I ended up winning the [200-yard breaststroke], one of the few events that we ended up winning in that meet. It was nice to be able to step up and help out the team.”

Hatanaka said that McHugh has a tremendous work ethic.

“He is very driven,” Hatanaka said. “If you are talking about swimming and his goals, he knows exactly what he wants, and he is always very persistent with that.”

Kremer said McHugh will travel with the team to the Big Ten championships, but he expects him to make the NCAA championships as well.

“You really have to place yourself among the top swimmers to be invited,” Kremer said. “I believe Conner will be one of those people. He is clearly one of the best breaststrokers in the United States. If things go as planned, he will be in the NCAA’s this year.”