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McHugh, teammates celebrate title

With much of the country focused on basketball’s March Madness, and much of our region avidly following the Nittany Lion Wrestling team’s dynastic eighth national title in nine years, Penn State swimmer Ally McHugh quietly made program history, capturing the women’s swimming and diving team’s first-ever NCAA title.

The senior captain finished the 1650 freestyle eight seconds faster than her Big Ten Championship winning time just a few weeks before, and an impressive five seconds ahead of the silver medalist.

Earlier in the NCAA meet, McHugh marked another milestone with a 10th-place finish in the 400 IM, posting a career best and school record.

Her national championship performance was the culmination of years of hard work for McHugh, but also a huge accomplishment for the Penn State program, launched a half-century ago under the guidance of trailblazer Ellen Perry.

Perry, who passed away in 2014, paved the way for women’s athletics at Penn State: coaching, teaching and advocating while rising to the post of Associate Athletic Director and Senior Women’s Administrator.

No doubt, Perry was somewhere smiling as McHugh swam her way into history.

The swimming and diving team has drawn national attention this year as fellow athletes around the country express their support of freshman Nikolette Nolte, courageously battling leukemia for the second time.

With the hashtag #NikiStrong, her teammates showed their support on Twitter as she started her treatments. Other Penn State athletes, including the football team followed suit, but that was just the beginning. Swim teams started to show their support as well with group photos and #NikiStrong signs from Ohio to Georgia and beyond. Even Olympic Gold Medalist Katie Ledecky chimed in with words of encouragement.

Throughout what should have been a fun and exciting freshman year in Happy Valley, Nolte has battled cancer with courage and grace, but also with a smile, facing the obstacles and challenges like a champion.

In her short time on campus, Niki made an impact with her teammates and coaches who often comment on her infectious smile and positive attitude. That indelible spirit is helping her cope with cancer, but also inspiring others.

One Twitter post shows her seemingly dancing in a surgical mask outside of the hospital’s blood and bone marrow transfer unit, preparing for a treatment that will hopefully lead her back to school…and the pool.

In a roller-coaster year for the Penn State swimming and diving program, these student-athletes and coaches have been reminded of the importance of family: those you are born into and those you make for yourself.

They have witnessed perseverance and exceptionalism from a team captain/NCAA Champion; they have also witnessed perseverance and exceptionalism from a freshman teammate who reminds them that victories come in many forms.

Donations can be made toward Nolte’s treatment at gopsu.info/nikistrong; surplus funds will be donated to THON.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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