Fans’ roars echo throughout the indoor arena. Swimmers step up to the blocks after a brief staredown between the competitors in each lane next to them. Whistles blow: two short, one long. The official reads the name of the next race. The buzzer sounds and they dive in.
This is the typical set-up for any given individual race in a regular season, NCAA-regulated dual swim meet.
In the world of COVID-19, very little is considered as typical as it once was, which has impacted how athletes compete, even in the most individually-geared sports.
On March 12, the Mountain Hawks raced against Rider in a virtual competition, without any spectators.
Instead of racing alongside their competitors, each team swam alongside their own teammates in Jacobs Pool.
Even though the NCAA and Patriot League regulations require meet officials to referee competition, given social distancing practices, each team’s coaches officiated the meet from their respective pools.
“There was no real approval process for the virtual meet,” said Rob Herb, men’s and women’s swimming and diving head coach. “It is an understanding between the two coaches competing in the format and how it’s to be run without officials. The two coaches decide and just keep it honest.”
While the altered officiation process was a seamless adjustment for coaches, the return to competition has impacted the team in its entirety. This meet was the first time the Mountain Hawks raced since the Patriot League Championships last February, before the pandemic.
Sophomore butterflier and freestyler Janik Wing said a year off of competing, even without in-person competitors, has allowed the team to come back to the sport with a newfound sense of gratitude.
“In a lot of ways, the morale and motivation as a whole has actually been better than before because it’s our first time being back in the water in over a year,” Wing said. “I think having that time away has really made us appreciate what we have when we have it.”
With the lack of in-person competition, Herb said oftentimes swimmers compete in time trials and other individually-driven races.
“In the world of swimming and diving, scores can be executed at a high-level without actually competing against someone next to them,” Herb said.
Even under these conditions, Herb said he felt the team was as competitive as they could be and made the best of the situation.
While three-quarters of the team returned to racing as Mountain Hawks this month, the freshman class of swimmers has adjusted to competing with a new team in a virtual format.
Freshman Kelsey Thompson had not competed in over a year after her high school championship season was canceled last March. Thompson said this virtual competition was not how she anticipated her return to racing or her start as a collegiate athlete.
“It was still fun to just race again because it’s been over a year since I last got to race and just see where my times were,” Thompson said. “The atmosphere was just different. There wasn’t as much of a competitive nature because I feel like when the other team’s there, you just push yourself harder because you want to win.”
Thompson said both teams attempted to keep the meet as real-time as possible.
After each race, the swimmers entered their times into a Google Sheet that would then be compared with the other teams with a five-minute break in between each event to allow for live scoring. The meet was also tracked on Meet Mobile, an app that provides real-time results to be checked from anywhere.
“Even after I swam, I would know where I came in with my teammates, but I wouldn’t know how the Rider girls were swimming,” Thompson said. “You don’t even get to see who you’re racing. All you see are these names on Meet Mobile.”
Despite the lacking competitive atmosphere, Wing and other teammates posted times similar to those midway through last season.
Wing said after a year off, he was surprised he could come back and be as resilient as he was with training.
“I really thought I’d struggle because I definitely felt out of shape,” Wing said. “You know, being able to come back, and after just three weeks, being able to compete at a level that’s pretty comparable to where I was mid-season last year was pretty surprising. I was kind of stunned.”
While being the only team in the pool, the lack of spectators contributed to a dissimilar competitive atmosphere. The team ran a live stream of all the events over Zoom, which allowed for families and fans to see the competition.
Herb, Wing and Thompson all said it felt reassuring to know fans were still somewhat present.
“I’m someone who before my race, I’ll always wave to my parents,” Thomspon said. “I feel like it just takes some nerves away. Not being able to look up in the stands at anyone and see people you know was just different.”
The team has also had to shift their practice schedule to both comply with COVID-19 protocols as well as train efficiently and safely during a shortened season.
Wing said the team had a week to transition while returning to practice, whereas in a normal year, that would be extended for a couple weeks or a month just to get back in rhythm.
“This year, it’s been really hit-the-ground-running, and we’re just transitioning into it but very quickly,” Wing said.
The team currently practices in two training groups to minimize the number of swimmers in the pool at one time. Although this in some ways changes the team dynamic, Wing said there are benefits of an emptier pool.
“We get more lane space, and we actually have the opportunity to have a higher quality practice with fewer people that you’re bumping into,” Wing said.
The Mountain Hawks will compete in a second all-virtual meet for the Patriot League Championships on April 3.
“I actually see this continuing into the future of our sport where we might be able to compete against teams a little further away, and I would hope that would be done more synchronously,” Herb said. “This experience, I think, can be enhanced as we get more comfortable with it and utilize it for some more interesting competitors across the country.”