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Alberta masters community stays connected through COVID-19 shutdown

Masters Swimming –

By: Rebecca Cheverton

For a group of masters swimmers in Alberta, the shutdown of their pool back in March only made the community’s bond stronger. The pandemic didn’t stop a group from Grande Prairie from connecting with one another, or stop their Sunday morning tradition.

Prior to March, the group would gather in the pool’s common area after every Sunday morning practice to enjoy a nice cup of coffee, an occasional sugary treat and each other’s company. They would use this time to learn about their teammates and talk about the upcoming week’s personal and professional challenges.

This ritual brought their group closer together. That’s why, when their facility had to temporarily shut down, they decided to take their tradition online. Every Sunday morning, they would instead log in into Zoom and meet virtually with their cups of coffee.

“Sunday morning Zoom meetings morphed into an opportunity for our community to learn about the many dimensions of its members,” said Wendy McMillan. “COVID quarantine had allowed us the opportunity to explore the members of this family in a very new and more personal way.”

The video calls allowed the swim group to see a different side of their members – mainly with bedhead and pajamas on. They continued to ask each other about the upcoming week’s challenges but they also got to see a glimpse into each other’s homes. They discovered talents and hobbies some had by the artwork behind them, they learned more about each other’s families as someone would walk into the frame, they even had contests for best coffee mug and pajamas.

“I think it meant a great deal to keep a community feeling within our swim group to discuss the whole situation and what’s been good/bad about it while expressing our desire to get back in the pool,” said Jeremy Lane, a masters swimmer in the group.

Once the provincial regulations loosened up and small gatherings outside were permitted, the group began organizing small tailgate hangouts in the parking lot of the pool.

“As time passed and regulations were relaxed we started with 10 people meeting in the parking lot, outside of their vehicles to ‘see’ each other in person,” said Natasha Evenson. “This soon got a little bigger and involved lawn chairs in a circle in the same parking lot.”

After a few months of these gatherings and with permissions from their local health leaders, they even threw their coach, Bill Nash, an outdoor 70th birthday party. Not being able to swim didn’t stop the group from celebrating their beloved leader.

Throughout the pool closure, many of the swimmers turned to other hobbies and passions to stay in shape. Although nothing beat their swim practices, they did activities such as running, mountain biking, hiking, tennis, yoga and golf.

In early July, after 125 days out of the water, the group finally got back in the pool. Under the provincial and local health guidelines, the group split into two cohorts of 30. Each group swims three times a week for an hour. Although this is less pool time than they were used to, the group is happy to be back together in the water.

“We are a community. That’s part of the reason becoming cohorts wasn’t really a big deal,” said Nash. “We already believe ourselves to be a loving and caring bunch of swimmers.”

Sunday morning coffee isn’t the only tradition they have. Living in the north of Alberta means attending swim meets isn’t always feasible. In order to get some racing experience, the group decided to come up with their own unique way to compete. They created virtual Skype swim meets to keep the momentum and motivation of the group going. The virtual swim meets allow for a safe and comfortable environment for their masters group to race and allows them to not only compete against those in Canada, but internationally as well. The past two years they have had a showdown with the Silver City Blues of Aberdeen, Scotland.

“We swam the same events at as close to the same times as we could. We compared times and a friendly rivalry was cemented,” said McMillan. “The next time we had this event, a smart board and live feed was established so you could walk by and talk with the competitors and even watch them swim their events.”

“This definitely gave [a] more real sense of competing with them as opposed to previous result sharing,” added Lane. “Some big thanks have to go to the pool manager and staff for the pool setup and the city of Grande Prairie IT department for setting up a connection that allowed us external communications access.”

Though they love to beat their opponents, it’s not all about winning for the group.

“Yes we all try to be faster, if not faster, better at speed swimming,” said Nash. “Medals are nice but not everyone pursues them. We’re satisfied in knowing that our peers, our family, our [children] know we gave it our all and did it as perfectly as we can.”

Despite the ongoing health and safety restrictions, the group is looking to continue their traditions in one form or another because to them they are more than just a swim group, they are a community.

“We are a family,” said Evenson. “There is such a supportive and guiding relationship amongst all of us, this does not stop at the pool.”