COVID Continues to Cast Shadow Over Short Course World Championships

GRIMES Katie USA Women's 800m freestyle heats Swimming Men's 4x100m freestyle final Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 17/12/21 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Giorgio Perottino / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Katie Grimes was among those ruled out from Short Course World Championships due to COVID protocols -- Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Perottino / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

COVID Continues to Cast Shadow Over Short Course World Championships

First, an Olympic gold medalist was pulled from his best event at Short Course Worlds, and the next day, two American medal contenders were ruled out for the meet. South Africans including Olympic gold medalist Tatjana Schoenmaker were unable to make the trip to Abu Dhabi, and many other swimmers have been knocked out since arriving. All of this because the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect lives around the world.

Of course, the challenges of the COVID pandemic are definitely not unique to swimming, and sports cannot be the top priority when the virus has killed millions worldwide over the past two years. Lately, it has been the fast-spreading and more contagious Omicron variant wreaking havoc all over the world, and even many fully-vaccinated individuals have tested positive.

Accordingly, sports have not been spared from these challenges. Just this week, all three major American sports leagues currently playing (NFL, NBA and NHL) have seen their biggest increases in COVID cases all season, leaving teams scrambling to sign new players so games can continue.

In swimming, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed one year, but thanks to stringent protocols and lucky timing, COVID did not make a major impact on the Games. One major contender was forced to miss Tokyo, Russian IMer Ilya Borodin, but otherwise, there are no athletes known to have tested positive or be quarantined in Tokyo. Likewise, most of the major Olympic Trials, including in the United States and Australia, proceeded without COVID-related disruptions.

Despite all the concerns about a pandemic Olympics, the Games went on. In short, we as a swimming community got lucky.

Thanks to Omicron, that’s no longer the case. Numerous athletes missed time during the ISL playoffs after testing positive, and now we’re seeing the impact on the World Championships: No Tom Dean in the men’s 200 freestyle, no Katie Grimes in the women’s 800 freestyle and no Lydia Jacoby in the women’s 100 breaststroke or 400 medley relay.

We hope that’s all, but no one would be surprised to learn Sunday that more athletes are now in COVID protocols and out for the meet, stuck in their hotel room thousands of miles from home. COVID presents serious health risks, and even if few of these swimmers are likely to develop severe illness or complications, no one wants to have to be isolated for a week or 10 days when they were supposed to be pursuing world titles. “Frustrating” just begins to describe such a scenario.

The pandemic typically ebbs and flows in waves, but we don’t know how long this Omicron-fueled surge will last. Meets will continue while organizers follow COVID-specific routines and athletes hope to stay healthy. Looking ahead on the calendar, the circled dates are in late May, when the world’s best are set to meet in Fukuoka, Japan, for the long course (and more prestigious) version of the World Championships, and countries will select their rosters for that meet at qualification meets in March and April.

The last thing anyone wants is to see one of the world’s best swimmers miss a qualifying race or not be allowed to race in Fukuoka because of a positive test. But that remains our reality right now, just like it has been for the past two years. Maybe the pandemic will have subsided in a few months, or maybe health and safety protocols will look different, but both seem fairly unlikely. Simply, this remains the reality, where one positive test can end a swim meet for one athlete and anyone ruled to be a close contact.

We can hope that none of the COVID cases associated with Short Course Worlds produce serious illness, but the days of being able to hold a meet in a COVID-free environment are a distant summer memory.