Swimming is listed in the lowest risk category by the National Federation of High Schools and the CIAC, regarding possible exposure to COVID-19, while competing in the sport.
Though swimming allows for social distancing and chlorinated water has been shown to kill viruses, there are some obstacles to be overcome and questions to be answered, involving the upcoming high school girls swim season.
Logistics is a topic of concern. Most high schools in Connecticut don’t have their own pools, so their designated “home” meets are often held at their local YMCA or YWCA. Only three schools in the FCIAC — Greenwich, Westhill and Norwalk have their own pools. In the SWC, Newtown, Weston, Pomperaug and Masuk have pools. Stratford and Bunnell share a pool. One of the questions heading into the season is whether YMCAs will be willing to rent out their facilities to swim teams for practices and meets, given the circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Something we are in the middle of talking to the New Canaan YMCA about is practice time,” said New Canaan girls swim coach Kat Munson, whose team practices and hosts its home meets at the New Canaan YMCA. “We have been informed only a certain number of athletes can be there at a time in one group. We may have to have one practice in the morning and maybe another in the afternoon. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Brookfield girls swimming coach Jason Paige holds practices and meets for his squad at the Brookfield YMCA, which has 18 lanes of pool space (three, six-lane pools), so spreading his athletes out for practice isn’t much of an issue. For some other teams however, it could be an obstacle.
“Most of the YMCAs in the state are open, but whether or not they are allowing outside groups in, I think that is dependent on each Y,” Paige said. “It depends on the kind of pool set-up each Y has. If it has only one pool, they are limited. Everyone will have to be flexible with their pool.”
Martha Phelan, who coaches the North Haven girls swim team in the fall and the North Haven/Guilford/North Branford/East Haven boys co-op team in the winter, noted finding venues for certain meets could be a challenge.
“Some universities, high schools and YMCAs may not allow rentals for the high school season,” Phelan said. “That creates a problem for the state tournament, or for people training. Each pool, even though there are guidelines created by the CDC and health department, has different interpretations of the unilateral guidelines.”
In the CIAC’s fall high school sports plan, which was released this week, it designates a two-week period (Nov. 2-15) for fall athletic teams to have a tournament experience. Traditionally, the CIAC State Open Championships is held at Yale University’s historic swim venue, while the Class meets usually take place at Wesleyan University and Southern Connecticut State University. Neither school will be available to host such championship meets this fall, since they are closed, due to the coronavirus crisis.
“I obviously, want us all to go deep into the season, but at this point, I just want to get the kids in the water and on the board,” Phelan said. “It is such an unsettling time for young people.”
Phelan noted there will be a CIAC Swim Conference Committee meeting on Monday. Consisting of 10 members, which includes coaches, high school swim officials and CIAC executive Joe Velardi. They are planning to discuss and create meet guidelines and protocols.
For high school swimming, the CIAC designated Aug. 27 as the first practice date, with training being done in cohorts of 15. On Sept. 11, all members of each team can practice together and on Sept. 24, the season commences.
Indeed, coaches are preparing to adjust their practices to adhere to the state’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“I think it affects other sports more than swimming, because it’s easier to do social distancing when it comes to swimming,” said Westhill/Stamford girls and boys swimming coach Rick Lewis, whose team trains at Westhill High School. “I’m appreciative of the 13 days before we can have our first meet. That gives us more time to get ready. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. Locker rooms are a major issue. Some athletes may have to come in with their suits on and leave with their suits on.”
Said Phelan, who also coaches a club swim team during the summer: “I’ve been encouraging athletes to come in a suit and leave in the suit.”
Swimming is one of the sports where roster numbers are usually larger and not many cuts are made, if at all. That may change this season, due to restrictions put on the amount of athletes allowed at each pool at one time.
“Depending on what I’m given in terms of practice time and space, it might be the first year I may have to make some cuts for space,” Munson said. “Typically in the past, we have bee able to really fit everyone on the team for the most part. But if I’m told I can’t have more than 15 girls on the team, I can’t have more than 15 girls on the team.”
“Culture changes on the team could be made,” Munson continued. “Team dinners might not be able to be held. Usually, they all sit on the bus together and cheer. They will have to be spaced out now. We’ll do what we can to keep up that vibe.”
Travel is also an issue to keep an eye on.
“From what I saw in the CIAC package, it talks a little bit about transportation,” Paige said. “Maybe there will be a little more flexibility with how swimmers travel. Normally, you are required to go on the bus. To get cleared to go home from with parents, the swimmer has to get a release form signed by parents.”
Added Phelan: “They don’t want schools to leave a certain geographical area. No one has any idea about transportation, so it may change this season.”
Obviously, coaches will adjust their practice schedules/format during the fall.
“We are going to have to limit the number of swimmers per lane,” Paige said. “We have a system where we can run practices for 24 swimmers, with four in each lane being spaced out 6-feet between them at all times. As far as training sets, with distance swims, you do shorter swims with less repetitions. Instead of a 500 yard swim straight, you can do five, 100 hundreds, so they don’t swim over each other.”
Numerous schools have developed a hybrid reopening approach, where certain students receive in-person instruction on certain days, then do distance learning on others.
“With the hybrid model, some of the kids aren’t in school that day and if we have a meet, they have to figure out how to get to school,” Lewis said. “That’s an issue no one has mentioned much.”
So indeed, there are challenges the high school swimming community will soon face.
“These kids need to be moving,” Phelan said. “But the fact that not one international and national level live swim meet has taken place during the pandemic tells you something. Colleges also didn’t hold meets. We all want this to succeed, it is important for the swimming community to come together for the survival of swimming.”