“Take 20 seconds, 30 if you really need it.”
Hood River Valley Swim Team coach Shelly Rawding watched from the deck, giving brief instructions and notes of encouragement including some intended to communicate a “take it slow” approach in the first week of swim practice in nearly four months.
Athlete safety, in times of COVID, gets as much focus as the workouts from Rawding and fellow coaches, as everyone finally gets back together at Hood River Aquatic Center, which opened June 26 for the first time since March 16. The familiar removable roof gives the facility outdoor status, helpful with COVID precautions. Taking priority are social distancing, wearing masks when not in the water, and maintaining surface sanitation.
Rawding gives technical instructions but carries a clipboard with a record of where athletes are at all times. Lanes are assigned and cannot be shared. Thursday she took extra time to explain again the safety measures to be followed while in the pool and moving about on the deck between sessions and to stretching and flexibility routines known dryland workouts.
The key COVID-related change athletes are adjusting to is “50s not 25s”: Swimmers do 50-yard down-and-back laps in the 25-yard pool. Swimmers go in different directions, swimming on the far side of the lane, away from the adjoining swimmer, and must stop and start on different ends.
“They can never be stopped at any point that is closer than six feet. They are keeping their distance,” Rawding explains. “With the open air right now, it’s great for this. They are learning a whole new thing with masks and (the pool deck) they are walking the same direction (counter-clockwise around the main pool).
“This is not really a pool rule, but a team rule, that way they are never passing anyone,” she said.
Rawding said she, and her athletes, are just glad to be in the pool, even with the new rules.
“I know I’m happy to be here after three months of not working and being inside, and I really miss my relationships I have with all the kids and I know they miss that with each other,” Rawding said. “We try to stay in contact, with emails and zoom meetings but it’s just not the same, not the same at all as actually seeing them.”
Those gathered in the pool for the club team’s 8 a.m. practices ranged from ages 10 up, and included first-year college water polo player Jamie Robinson, home for the summer. Last week, they went every day for two hours, but the schedule will move to 8-9:30 a.m. and three days a week, given what Rawding said is a drop off in numbers.
“We’ve had really good attendance, really good numbers,” she said, given the understandable choice by some families that students not participate under the circumstances. “Most teams are down about 20 percent,” she said of other Oregon programs. “We’re close, down about 25 percent.”
As to competitions, the questions remain as to the when and how. USA Swimming has not sanctioned any meets in 2020, according to Rawding.
“They are saying in July we can have locally sanctioned competitions and maybe in August we can do it regionally, but I have no idea when we’re going to do our first meet,” she said. “With social distancing requirements, I don’t know how we can run a meet yet at this point.
“I think we will probably start with a virtual meet where we swim in our pool and (opponents) in their home pool, and combine the results. I have a feeling that virtual meets are going to be the way we will have most of our swim meets for the next year or so,” Rawding said.
She sees advantages coming from the health-related changes in how teams must operate.
When asked, in virtual meets, if the athletes would miss the side-by-side presence of opponents, she said, “I’m sure that is something most will miss, but it’s important to remember that it’s really between you and the lane. Everyone has a chance. It doesn’t really matter what the competition is doing, You’ve got to give it your all. I think in that point it could be a benefit of being virtual competitions. Kids who are always thinking of those around them can really focus on what they are doing and see what they can accomplish. I think there is something we all can learn from it.
“We’re definitely learning as we go, what works and what ages it works well with and who we need to spend a little more time and effort with,” said Rawding, sporting an aquatic-motif mask lined with swimmers doing the crawl, made by assistant coach M.J. Caswell.
“She asked what kind of mask I wanted and I suggested something water related. M.J. said, ‘I have swimmers,’ and I said, ‘that’s perfect.’”