Accomplished Charlotte Catholic swimmer takes things as they come
Friday, Jan. 10, 2014

Accomplished Charlotte Catholic swimmer takes things as they come

    - Courtesy of Melissa Lundie
    Charlotte Catholic swimmer Nora McCullagh also swims with SwimMAC, helping the club to a USA Swimming Speedo Winter Junior National Championship in December.
    Melissa Lundie - Courtesy of Melissa Lundie
    Charlotte Catholic swimmer Nora McCullagh swam in the 2012 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb.
    Coach Brian Gross said junior Charlotte Catholic swimmer Nora McCullagh is one of the most versatile swimmers he’s ever coached. She is on a Cougars team that is trying to win its 13th straight state championship.

What Nora McCullagh accomplished last year in the pool is something most high school swimmers can only dream of.

Then a Charlotte Catholic sophomore, McCullagh won two individual state championships – the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard backstroke – in record-setting time. And she was also a part of two state championship relay teams, the 200- and 400- yard freestyle relays, which both set all-classification records.

McCullagh’s MVP performance at the 3A state meet helped coach Brian Gross and the Catholic girls win a 12th straight state title.

Outside of high school, she swam in the 2012 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., and helped the SwimMAC Carolinas girls’ team to a USA Swimming Speedo Winter Junior National Championship in December 2013 in Greensboro. In that meet, McCullagh and Catholic teammates Lauren Rhodes and Elsa Welshofer, as well as Cannon School’s Maija Roses, set a meet record in winning the 4x100-yard medley relay.

McCullagh, now a junior, finished eighth individually in both the 50-freestyle and 200-individual medley, sixth in the 200-freestyle and fourth in the 100-freestyle at the same event.

While some 16-year-olds would have a hard time dealing with the success and pressure that follows, McCullagh just takes things as they come.

“I definitely had a great year (last year), and I know it’s not going to be easy to do it all over again,” said McCullagh, who stands at 5-feet-5-inches. “My goal is to go out, have fun and swim as fast as I can. Of course, having fun usually means winning for me. But all I can focus on is doing my best.”

Gross said while McCullagh loves the freestyle sprints, she is one of the most versatile swimmers he has ever coached and excels in the backstroke, individual medley and even butterfly.

“Nora can do it all, and she will do whatever our team needs,” Gross said. “I could utilize her anywhere, and she would find a way to win.”

McCullagh trains six days a week with her SwimMAC team under coach Alan Pfau, with Monday and Friday practices starting at 5 a.m. and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday training sessions after school. She also throws in a Saturday morning workout each week.

Many of her Charlotte Catholic teammates swim with SwimMAC as well, including her younger sister, Erin, as well as Lauren Rhodes, Nicole Emery and Elsa Welshofer.

Both McCullagh sisters also went to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs over their Christmas break.

“Swimming does take a lot of my time, but I get to do it with a lot of best friends. And we work hard, but also have a lot fun together,” said McCullagh. “Being able to compete with the best helps me stay at my best and keep my goals high.”

Swimming at a high level is nothing new for the McCullagh family. Her father and mother, Mark and Mary, both swam at Boston College; her older brother, Hayes, 18, is a freshman on the Naval Academy team after swimming at Charlotte Latin.

“I learned a lot in the pool from my mom and dad, and definitely look up to my brother … ,” said Nora McCullagh, who started swimming at age 7 and went year-round with the sport at 12. “Swimming has always been something fun for all for our family. We work hard at it, but we try to keep it fun and try not to take everything too seriously.”

McCullagh and her Catholic teammates have a new challenge after moving up to class 4A. To win a 13th straight title, they will have to go through strong teams like reigning 4A state champion Hough.

“We’re all definitely excited to have some new competition, some new people to race,” said McCullagh. The team also competes in the new SoMeck 8 conference with teams like Ardrey Kell, Providence High and South Mecklenburg.

“We all want to keep our championship streak going and get No. 13.”

While McCullagh is focused on her junior year, she is also thinking about her future. She is already a target of multiple Division I programs.

Five of her Catholic teammates recently made their college commitments: seniors Emery (Notre Dame), Rhodes (N.C. State), Maria Sheridan (Duke), Christina Sullivan (Villanova) and Welshofer (Princeton).

“I’m definitely thinking about it and it seems so big right now,” McCullagh said. “But I’m also excited about what will happen in the next chapter of my life.”

McCullagh also hopes to swim in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

“Going to the (Olympic) trials and seeing all those great swimmers like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and more, was coolest things I’ve ever experienced,” McCullagh said. “I definitely want to go back.”

While McCullagh says it would be a dream to compete for a spot on U.S. Olympic team one day, she’s going to stick to her approach of taking things as they come.

“I definitely hope to get back to Olympic Trials again,” McCullagh said. “But I’ve got so much I want to accomplish before then, that’s as far I’ve thought about for now.”

Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at

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