Jacobs co-op senior Jenny Tokarz became increasingly worried this summer as days passed by and the majority of pools and facilities remained shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tokarz's offseason involved little swimming; instead, she focused on dry land and strength training. Last month, with some luck and kindness, Tokarz and teammate Kate Trembly had a neighbor offer them use of their inground pool.
"We swam back and forth, just to get some kind of feeling back," Tokarz said.
When the IHSA announced last week its plan to go ahead with some fall sports, including girls swimming, boys and girls golf, girls tennis and boys and girls cross country, Tokarz felt a huge sense of relief.
"I thought by summer, everything would be better, everything would be open," said Tokarz, a three-time state qualifier and 2019 Northwest Herald Girls Swimmer of the Year. "I was really worried because everything was closed. When I found out (there would be a season), I cried."
As the "lower" risk sports, as classified by the Illinois Department of Public Health, are set to return, the way they look and operate will be very different. Girls swimming, which can begin practice Monday and competition events Aug. 24, is no exception.
According to the IHSA's guidelines released Thursday, relays will not be allowed and only 50 people, including swimmers, coaches, timers, officials, spectators and media, will be allowed inside the natatorium, or pool area.
Face masks must be worn at all times by anyone not competing or warming up or down, teams will be held to opposite sides of the pool for duals, with the home team swimming in lanes 1-3 and the visitors swimming in lanes 4-6, and swimmers will be limited to one swimmer per lane during competition.
Multi-team events are allowed, but still must comply to the 50-person maximum, according to the guidelines, and schools cannot hold meets against teams outside of their respective conferences or Restore Illinois regions.
For teams such as LaSalle-Peru co-op, which competes in the Interstate Eight Conference, a two-team conference in girls swimming, scheduling can quickly get tricky. And then there is the demand for pool time and facilities, as not each school has its own pool. Some share the same local facilities.
"It's pretty much taking the schedule my athletic director worked on diligently this past year and kind of throwing it out the window," LaSalle-Peru co-op coach Rob McNally said. "I think we have 10 or 12 teams (in our region), maybe 15 off top of my head. But a lot of those teams are already in conferences, so unless they are freeing up space or creating space because of not being able to go out of their conference or district, there may not be availability."
For practices, the IHSA is allowing multiple swimmers per lanes. However, per the Illinois Department of Public Health, parental consent must be provided to the schools. The IHSA is recommending that coaches conduct workouts in “pods” of same swimmers who are training together, ensuring more limited exposure in case someone gets sick.
Cary-Grove coach Scott Lattyak plans to split his team into "A," "B," and "C" groups with each receiving days and times to practice. Sage YMCA in Crystal Lake, where the Trojans practice, is operating at 30% capacity, Lattyak said. Right now, the team is allowed 15 swimmers in the pool at any given time.
"It's going to be a bit of a challenge," Lattyak said.
Tokarz said that she has always felt safe returning, but understands why there are more safety protocols and guidelines in place.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread to people through water in pools, hot tubs or water playgrounds, while disinfection of the water with chlorine should inactivate the virus. The IHSA now recommends to keep chlorine levels closer to 2.0 parts per million.
"I've never felt scared, but I do understand this isn’t a regular sickness," Tokarz said. "You can't really compare it to the regular flu. I'm just looking forward to to having one last chance to swim with everybody again. Even though it’s not how I wanted it to end, I'm happy to have some kind of senior year."
Coaches feel similarly; they are happy just to have a season.
"Even if we have limitations and don't have the championship meets, we're still trying to create strong athletes," Lattyak said. "I was excited and happy we were still having a season. It gives these kids an opportunity to get back together, to have some semblance of social in their lives, aside from the competition it provides."
NO MORE RELAYS
One of the bigger changes this season will be the absence of relays, which can create some of the more memorable and thrilling moments in a meet. High school swimming and diving meets typically end with a relay.
Competitors from all teams – whether or not the last relay has an impact on the final scores or standings – stand, squat, hunch over and pack the end of swimming lanes, slapping the water and cheering wildly.
In big meets, the noise bouncing around the pool can be delightfully deafening. It's what so many love about the sport: the collective chaos, competition among peers, high energy and excitement that fills the pool area.
"My favorite thing in the whole world, both as a coach and as a swimmer, is when you have the entire team at the end of the lane," said Huntley girls swimming coach Jenna Gaudio, whose team won the Fox Valley Conference championship for the first time last season. "There's so much energy. You can feel it."
Lattyak was hoping the IHSA could find a way to keep relays. However, eliminating relays is the only way swimming can keep the IDPH's status of a "lower" risk sport, which are the only sports allowed to compete at this time.
"That's kind of the most exciting part of the season for me, watching close relays fight it out," Lattyak said. "If we're going to allow training with 15 swimmers in the water, you only have one kid in the water at any given time for a relay. All you would have to do really is make sure everyone is spaced out well behind the blocks, but I understand that's a challenge to do."
Lattyak did find a possible positive unintended consequence of getting rid of relays. Allowing only individual races, and adding more heats, could lead to more chances for swimmers who may not normally compete in those races.
Each swimmer will be allowed to compete in up to four races a meet.
"You never know, you might find some new rising stars," Lattyak said.
St. Charles North coach Rob Rooney, whose team won a sectional title last year, said that he welcomes any idea that allows swimming to continue.
"In my brain, I've already dealt with three sides of emotion with that," Rooney said. "I will miss relays, the kids will miss relays, but if it's the social distancing that's going to help us keep our sport in the water, I'm an advocate for it."
Gaudio has already received multiple emails informing her of canceled meets. The Red Raiders, which had their biggest team in program history last season with 28 swimmers, along with three coaches, normally make weekend trips to Rockford, Gurnee and Orland Park for events with 12 teams or more.
Those day-long bus rides probably won't take place this season. Even practices, with pool time, space and capacity limits affecting each team differently, won't be the same.
"It's probably going to include a lot more dry land conditioning, depending on how many people they say can be in a lane at a time," Gaudio said.
The shortened 10-week season is also a concern for some coaches. Many athletes have had trouble finding time to swim this summer with many pools and facilities shut down because of COVID-19.
"That's not a very long season for an aerobically challenging sport like swimming," McNally said.
No decision has been made on the state series yet but the IHSA recommends that coaches keep the date of Oct. 24, the last day of the abbreviated season, open for the possibility of "some form of (the) state series event."
Rooney said if a state series is not allowed, the coaches in his region and conference will try and find a way to have a championship meet of some kind. For now, he's hopeful there will be a state series.
"The IHSA said not to reserve any meets for that final weekend," Rooney said. "That's telling me that they want to see it happen just as much as us."
A new normal for swimming will require everyone to be flexible, open and creative, Gaudio said.
"I think the key right now is to be as flexible as possible, so we can give the kids the opportunity to swim," she said. "As a sport collectively, we’re going to be as creative as possible. My goal is to give the kids as close as a traditional season they possibly can have."
LAYING A PATH
Girls swimming is the only sport returning that competes indoors, meaning a lot of people will be paying close attention to how successful or unsuccessful the sport is this fall.
That responsibility should be taken seriously, Rooney said.
"I believe it's not what can we do, it's what will we do," Rooney said. "By following the guidelines set by the IDPH and the IHSA, it gives us an opportunity. Part of me is excited, and part of me is proceeding with caution. My hope is that the IHSA sees that girls swimming is a low risk, and it enables us to clear the path for everyone else."
Rooney is excited for the challenges of an unconventional season.
"I couldn't think of a better sport to lay the path for the winter sports," Rooney said. "There are a lot of great coaches out there and a lot of great parents who want to make sure these kids have an opportunity.
"The last thing we want to see is those pools empty."