By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, November 18, 2016
Despite a disappointing Olympic Trials this summer, Brendan McHugh isn’t ready to say he’s done with swimming.
To use a term from his career in law, the jury is still out on that decision.
But in the meantime – while he waits to hand down his own personal verdict – McHugh, a commercial litigation attorney with Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP in Philadelphia, is taking things in stride.
You might say his original thought to call it a career is on appeal.
“I’m not quite ready to end my career, but I need to scale back now because I put my law career on hold the past year or so to train for Trials,” said McHugh, who received the offer to join the firm over a year ago but deferred to focus on swimming. “Law is my career path after swimming, so I’m getting started now instead of waiting.”
A 2012 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, McHugh took the LSAT and enrolled at Washington and Lee University School of Law and continued to train toward the 2016 Olympics. He graduated with his juris doctorate degree in 2015.
Citing his first two years of law school as especially challenging, he said he found solace and time for reflection in the pool.
Amidst classes, studying and lots of papers, he discovered that swimming was the highlight of his day.
He made time to get in the water as a way to clear his mind, focus and even do a little homework in his head.
“Swimming definitely helped me get through law school – the first two years because they were so tough and I needed an escape, and the third because it was so easy that swimming provided a good challenge and distraction,” he said.
“That helped prepare me well for 2014 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships when I won the 50 breaststroke and made the 2015 World Championship team. That gave me a ton of confidence moving forward.”
When this summer came around, McHugh went to Omaha with some fairly high expectations – much higher than he had four years earlier at Trials when he was there to swim and have a great time.
Although he wasn’t a favorite in his events, based on his recent results and times, he was definitely included in the conversation as someone to watch.
And while he earned a spot in the final of the 200 breaststroke (finishing eighth), he missed earning a spot in the final of the 100 breast – the event he considered to be his best shot to make the Olympic team.
Needless to say, he walked away from the meet with a much different outlook and feeling than he did in 2012.
“I don’t think I let other people’s expectation affect my swims, but the heats, semis and finals in both events were much faster than I anticipated,” he said. “If I was feeling any pressure – which I know I was – to swim fast and make the team, it came from me. I put enough pressure on myself for everyone.
“But I went into Trials with realistic expectations. I knew I would have had to have one of my best and fastest meets to make the team. Still, it’s disappointing that I didn’t swim as well as I knew I could.”
Rather than allow the disappointment of missing the team to negatively impact him, McHugh decided to take a break from competitive swimming and evaluate his future in the pool when he can be more objective.
He said knowing that he had a defined career path in law as well as a job waiting for him helped him deal with the disappointment.
“I realized what I had accomplished, and I gave myself a lot of credit for having taken a shot at realizing my dream,” he said. “I’m very proud of the journey that I took to get where I am. Swimming helped me do well in law school, and I know putting time into swimming is never a bad investment.”
And although he’s focusing more on his career than swimming right now, McHugh – who hasn’t ruled out making another run at the Olympics in 2020 – knows he isn’t finished.
“The 50 breaststroke is actually my best event, so I’m looking ahead to Nationals next summer to try to make the World team,” said McHugh, who makes time in his busy 60-hour-a-week schedule as a new associate to swim in the morning several times a week.
“But as far as anything beyond that, I’m just going to take things slow, focus on my career and see where swimming fits. I’ll probably be at Trials in 2020, but I’m definitely not taking it as seriously as I have the past couple of years. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to love swimming more and more, so I’m not ready to give it up yet.”