Sarah Sjostrom & Michael Andrew Embracing Challenges of Budapest Bubble as ISL Season Kicks Off Friday

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Last season's MVP, Sarah Sjostrom will get her first taste of racing on Friday at the ISL. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Sarah Sjostrom & Michael Andrew Embracing Challenges of Budapest Bubble as ISL Season Kicks Off Friday

The action from the International Swimming League’s Budapest bubble gets underway Friday 4 p.m. local time (10 a.m. New York). The LA Current, Cali Condors, New York Breakers and defending champs Energy Standard will kick off the six-week season that will run through November 22.

The athletes, coaches and medical staff will stay on Margaret Island and Duna Arena for more than a month, which may get difficult as the days roll on. The Budapest bubble was designed to mimic bubble formats perfected in the NBA, NHL, WNBA and MLS in the United States, where each league finished their season with zero positive COVID-19 cases.

But a bubble also brings challenges. Athletes will be away from family members for the next six weeks and will endure lots of racing over that time. Swimmers like Michael Andrew (New York Breakers) and Sarah Sjostrom (Energy Standard) are accustomed to traveling extensively throughout World Cup season and with the FINA Champions Series, but will remain in the same place this time around.

The focus, for now, is on the excitement of finally being able to race.

“I’ve always been known to race constantly throughout the year so it is as much as the other athletes have been saying, it is long overdue,” Breakers captain Michael Andrew said in a press conference Thursday. “We haven’t raced since March so I’m thrilled to finally be able to race again. Apart from that, getting into a routine and a rhythm in the ISL inside of our own bubble is really important and vital. So as a team and with the coaches, we have been able to do that.

“Especially after our first competition, we will be able to learn a lot from that knowing we haven’t raced in quite a while. I’m a very specifically-trained athlete. I prefer racing constantly because I learn from every opportunity and learn from every race so I am looking forward to seeing a progression throughout the ISL season.

“I’m just thrilled to finally get to race again. I think it is going to be an exciting battle and we are ready for it.”

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Michael Andrew; Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

The excitement of just being able to race in a real meet is ringing true throughout the bubble.

“A lot of swimmers around the world have not even been able to do any training because of quarantine rules so we are very very lucky to be able to do this,” Energy Standard captain Sarah Sjostrom said. “It’s amazing to sit here next to the pool and it’s happening now. We are very very excited to get started. First of all, we have to learn how to race again, it feels like that was such a long time ago!”

Energy Standard head coach James Gibson knew the six-week bubble would bring its challenges. The way he has approached it from a coaching perspective, is taking one meet at a time and focusing on short-term goals to keep everything fresh and new.

“It’s six weeks, but we also knew there were going to be six competitions over that period,” Gibson said. “What I’m dealing with my team is having short term goals and short term focus just to keep everyone mentally on the right level. We have prepared them to get their Netflix ready and get everything ready with their entertainment before they arrive.

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Energy Standard coaches high five Femke Heemskerk and Sarah Sjostrom. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“A lot of them have schoolwork. (15-year-old Italian) Benedetta Pilato has online lessons all day every day so she is pretty occupied. It’s challenging and especially coming out of a pandemic situation – some of my guys were out of the water for 14 weeks completely, and we are just trying to make due. We have only had Chad (Le Clos) back for four weeks in the program because South Africa had a lot stricter lockdown levels, but it is what it is.

“I hear comments about preparing for the Olympics – we aren’t interested in that. This is the ISL – we are here to compete for the next six weeks. We don’t care about the conditions of the athletes coming in. We are just going to ask them to come in and race their asses off and give a lot of heart like they did last year.”

Last season’s MVP, Sarah Sjostrom, has kept busy in her first few days in the bubble with media interviews, training and virus testing. Most of the athletes arrived a week ago, in order to acclimate to the time change and pass COVID-19 testing protocols. But for her and many other athletes, it’s like a six-week long training camp. It just so happens that most of the best swimmers in the world are there.

“I’m doing the last preparations before we start racing tomorrow,” Sjostrom said. “We’ve only been here a few days but I’m trying to find new routines – playing video games or watching TV shows. I’m just taking my time to rest and get ready for racing.”

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