How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Affected College Swimming

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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Affected College Swimming

(From the January issue of Swimming World Magazine)

While college swimming has assumed a back-in-business profile, all is not exactly as it seems. Admittedly, the COVID-induced 22-month hiatus disrupted familiar operational and competitive rhythms. That left even more of a divide between schools and divisions, says Jon Howell, whose Emory women have won every NCAA D-III championship since 2010 (10 in a row, with the meet canceled in 2020 and 2021).

“I see that range of disparity growing at least for a while,” he said. “It’s been hard on a lot of institutions, and people have had to make some serious cutbacks. I don’t see that going away in a year. What we are finding is that COVID seems to be a little behind us, but there are still ripples that create waves we have to manage.”

And those ripples affect every aspect of the competitive spectrum: athlete and coaching routines, planning, practices, meets, travel and recruiting. While restrictions upon campuses have eased, some universals remain, especially masking and forms of social distancing.

“There’s just more to think about on a daily basis,” said Johns Hopkins coach Scott Armstrong. “Mandatory indoor masking, weekly COVID tests for all athletes. We have an app where athletes have to register any travel and take a daily health check. Last year really affected their social lives most of all, party registrations and size limits. This year, most of the teams on campus are just not socializing in big groups out of fear of losing their seasons. They are really trying to be above reproach so that they don’t lose their ability to compete again,” he says.

Armstrong has a kindred soul in Queens’ Jeff Dugdale, whose Royals have won the last six contested D-II championships: “We have many athletes who have embraced taking team or friend walks in the evening and spending more time outdoors because of what they have learned from last year.”

Practices, both in-water and dryland, have received a second look as well. Dugdale reports that training has “gone to another level because athletes now know that we are never promised tomorrow. A season could be canceled with a moment’s notice. It is very real for them.” He’s also become more flexible, adaptable and introduced more recovery into the team’s training regimen. “I do not hesitate to give someone off if I feel they need it. We learned from COVID and all the fast swimming that we can afford to do it.”

Practicing without restrictions has been a blessing, especially for a team like Hopkins with a six-lane pool. “Last spring was a mess—basically, we could only swim five hours per week, but now we are pretty well back to normal,” said Armstrong. “I am much more likely to cut the filler out of the practices and just goof around with swimmers more. We really are focusing more on making the pool a fun place while also getting the main thing done.”

Todd DeSorbo’s national champion Virginia women appeared to benefit from an altered training schedule due to the pandemic. “We learned a lot regarding how much training means. Last year, we didn’t do doubles the entire first semester; we went from nine to six practices per week. I was OK with that because the athletes had three months off (in some cases, five), and got back in during late July and August. They trained straight through August, and by September, they were in better shape than they had ever been by Sept. 1. In 2021 with Trials and the Olympics, nobody had been in the water for at least four weeks, taking a break they really needed. This year, we didn’t do doubles until the end of September,” he said.

Coach planning routines have undergone changes as well. “I really know we need to keep swimmers healthy as much as possible. If someone shoots me a text message at 5 a.m. saying they don’t feel well, I tell them to stay home, where in the past, I might have told them to get their butt in gear,” said Armstrong.

“We went from a year where kids were taking classes in their bedrooms or at home. Class grading was a little more forgiving because professors were worried about kids. Coming back from COVID, I’ve had to be a little more patient,” says Howell. “We’ve really focused a lot on mental health and psych. We’ve created an endowment to raise awareness of mental health. That’s been a priority,” he says.

The Mental Toll

In these COVID days, coaches are entering a brave new world of their own when it comes to routine and planning. “I feel like I work 24/7,” said Howell. “Everything just takes more time. Travel—it’s hard to get vans. We have to have backup plans for everything we do. Supply chains are a disaster. Everything has been delayed. To do things to our standard takes more time and effort. I assume that will melt away over time, but it is the reality of where we are.”

More than one program leader took inventory of his own mental health. Both Dugdale and DeSorbo have adopted routines that allow for some mental space away from the job. “These days, I go home for breakfast after morning workout, see the kids off to school and work out in the weight room I built in the garage,” said the Virginia coach. Previously, he’d pack breakfast and lunch, leave for work and arrive home after p.m. practice.

Travel seems less of an issue for D-I programs. In October, Virginia went cross country to take on the Cal Bears. Drury’s dual meet schedule remains relatively unchanged. “Some teams at smaller schools have had budgets impacted,” said the Panthers’ Brian Reynolds. “Last year, we had a big drop in the budget, simply because we weren’t going to travel as much. We saved the school a lot of money.” Such cuts have led to a lot of reprioritizing across the board.

Recruiting

From Armstrong’s perspective, Hopkins recruiting “totally changed and still changes every week. The current class of first-years didn’t really get any sort of a visit process. And this current group got only one-day visits. That pushed this already accelerating timeline up even more. If there is no info to gather from an official overnight in the fall, why not commit in July?” he asked. “My hope is that it slows back down. With the academic standards at Hopkins as high as they are, it’s really made things difficult on us. We simply cannot commit to someone before July after junior year, so all these juniors committing in the fall don’t even have a shot with Hopkins.”

Emory faces a very similar situation. “The reality with the ’23s is I’m not going to know who is a really good fit until the spring anyway because junior year is such a pivotal year academically. I don’t think we’ll have a junior who can commit. That’s a D-I reality. We need more time to unfold before we can go down that path,” Howell said.

As for Virginia, the Cavaliers are back to official recruiting visits. “I think our athletes have forgotten how tiring, involved and how much work it is,” said DeSorbo. The good news is that as early as last May, the Cavaliers had already snagged three of the country’s top 13 females as well as the No. 1-ranked Pennsylvania prospect, Zoe Skirboll.

Top-ranked Division II programs tend to have a significant international presence within their rosters. “If you are going to maintain a top-five national spot, you have to have an international influx,” said Reynolds. Queens and Drury sat atop the D-II standings last year. Thirty-three percent of their rosters for 2021-22 are comprised of international swimmers. Not only are the athletes fast, but the Drury faculty gives them props for adding “a welcome diversity of thought and presence across the student body.”

Both schools have resumed campus recruiting visits, up to 48 hours for long distance prospects, yet Dugdale found real value in last year’s virtual approach. “Walking the campus virtually upped the engagement quotient that resulted in a large class of well-assimilated freshmen. This is one area from which all divisions can learn. To save our sport and budgets, I feel strongly that we should move back to senior recruiting and get rid of the recruiting budgets. Most prospects find their way to the school of their interest. If prospects visit on their own, your yield rate increases,” he said.

While social distancing protocols limit pre- and post-meet pleasantries, dual meets, lost for much of last year, are treasured. “We are making a bigger deal out of each meet and making tech suits optional more often,” said Armstrong. “I always talk with the other coaches beforehand to see what their teams will be doing, but our view is that if you have a meet, it’s a chance to swim fast. Why not maximize your potential?”

“It’s always a good time to swim fast,” agreed Dugdale. “Never take a chance to race for granted knowing that it can be taken away.”

Here to Stay?

The good old days? “I don’t think life will ever be the same,” said Reynolds. “We’ll work harder more often. There are a lot of things we’ve learned from COVID, but I don’t think we’ll ever be back to normal. This is going to be with us for quite a while.”

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” was published in June 2021, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and book distributors worldwide.

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