Baylor School senior Sam McHugh was like most boys growing up on Signal Mountain: There was at least one sport for every season.
His father, Bob, competed in several sports for Baylor, helping the Red Raiders to a state wrestling title and playing quarterback in a victory over City High and eventual UCLA linebacker Tommy "Freight Train" Taylor. He also swam, and that wound up being the path McHugh has navigated to national recognition.
"I played a bunch of sports and have pretty much done everything -- soccer, baseball, football, basketball," McHugh said, "but the summer before my freshman year was when I really started getting into swimming. I was just a lot better in swimming than I was in all the other sports."
A decade after jumping into the water as an 8-under with the Signal Mountain Green Giants, McHugh is days away from graduating as arguably the most decorated swimmer in Baylor's illustrious history. He has pool records in the 100-, 200- and 500-yard freestyle events as well as the 200-yard individual medley, and he teamed with Luke Kaliszak, Dustin Tynes and Christian Selby on a 200-yard medley relay at February's state meet in Nashville that set a national high school record of 1:27.24.
McHugh signed a scholarship last November with the University of Tennessee, and he won't be forgotten by Baylor swim coach Dan Flack any time soon.
"People ask how I know when I have a good swimmer, and I tell them that I watch how they ride in the water, because some people float and some don't," Flack said. "When I coached at the University of North Carolina, you had to pass a swimming class in order to graduate. There were special cases, mainly with football and basketball players who were African-American and so thickly muscled. They had never learned how to swim and sank like a stone when they hit the water.
"Sam is the exact opposite, because he rides easy on the water, and we noticed that right away."
Flack has worked with multiple All-Americans during his nine years with the Aqua Raiders and Lady Raiders, but McHugh may be his most versatile talent. At the state meet, McHugh swam a blistering 21-flat in his 50-yard butterfly leg of the record-setting medley relay. Then in the 500 free, the meet's longest race, McHugh's time of 4:16.76 became the third-fastest in United States history for a high school swimmer.
"Each year his talents have kind of evolved," Flack said. "He started out as a ninth-grader in the distance freestyle. As a sophomore, he made the Olympic Trials in both backstroke races. I'm timing him during his junior year, and his fly is really fast, and he ends up making our national junior team in the 200 fly.
"This year, he just put it all together. What makes him special is his versatility and his consistency. He's the most consistent-working boy I've coached in 25 years."
McHugh credits his versatility to Flack's practice schedule. The focus of morning practices is on strength and building for the sprint races, while the afternoon workouts deal more in distance.
As for his standing among Baylor's best swimmers or this year's Aqua Raiders among the school's best teams, McHugh refrains from such debates. Baylor's girls have won three Swimming World national championships under Flack, while the boys have won two independent school titles and have their best shot yet at an overall crown.
Swimming World will not announce its national champion until this summer, but one rival coach is quick to put Baylor's successful season in perspective.
"In my 22 years here, they have the best team I've seen in this city in any sport," McCallie's Stan Corcoran said.
So dominant was Baylor at the state meet that the Aqua Raiders placed first in every event but the 200 freestyle. Flack said it could have been a clean sweep had Selby, who won the 100 free in a state-record time, competed in the 200 but that more Swimming World national points could be gained by spreading him throughout the three relays.
"Our teams in '08 and '09 were much deeper, but at the top end, this is a really good team," Flack said. "One of my goals here has always been to have the most impressive record board in the country, and once we get the new times up, it will be pretty impressive."
McHugh said a Swimming World national championship "would mean everything" to him and his teammates before they advance to life's next stage. Kaliszak will be moving on to Alabama, while Tynes is headed to Ohio State.
Once in Knoxville, McHugh will be looking to build on what already has been quite a career.
"I hope to be one of their star swimmers and hopefully an NCAA champion," he said. "I hope they focus me on some of my favorite events, like the 200 fly or 500 free or maybe the 200 free and 200 back. Maybe even the 400 IM.
"I would be happy with any of those."
Sure he would. He's versatile.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...