By Jim Morris
When their pool was closed due to COVID-19 last year, members of the KISU Swim Club in Penticton, B.C., had to be innovative in their training for a month.
“There was no pool available so we did the lake,” explained head coach Tina Hoeben.
When the Swift Current Barracudas returned to the water, head coach Homie Jadid learned reducing practices from two-hour sessions to around 90 minutes actually improved results.
“They had better attitudes,” Jadid said about his swimmers. “They had more energy. The kids were doing better.”
Unable to travel to meets, head coach Alex Dawson of the Grande Prairie Piranhas organized virtual competitions with clubs around the world.
“I just reached out to some people across Canada and further afield and we agreed upon a racing format,” said Dawson. “The kids enjoyed that because they didn’t get to travel that far.”
Forced to wear masks on deck, coaches with the Fredericton Aquanauts Swim Team (FAST) found it hard to communicate with younger swimmers.
“Our coaches started using signs,” said Jill Ramsey, the club’s executive assistant. “It actually helped because some kids are visual learners. There are some good things that came out of COVID.”
In Regina, the kid-first philosophy used by Flatland Swimming during the pandemic kept swimmers engaged and saw enrolments increase.
“Everything we did was about keeping the kids mentally active and meaningfully engaged,” said head coach Jeff Toth. “We weren’t just throwing things at them. We went about things a little bit differently.”
Swim clubs across the country are learning to adapt to the new normal as they deal with measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rules and restrictions clubs face may vary by region, but generally there is a sense of relief as swimmers get back in the water.
“Every time they’ve been allowed back in, and they have been in out and a lot, they’ve always been super excited about coming back, getting together,” said Dawson. “That social aspect of it is key for them, having that grounding, that one place they know is going to be pretty consistent.”
Jadid said keeping the swimmers and coaches healthy is the first priority. He’s had emails from some parents complaining the protocols in place are too strict and others lamenting they are not strict enough.
Recently he took a small group to Regina to compete in their first meet in 19 months.
“I could see they were nervous,” he said. “I got a lot of positive feedback from parents. They said the kids were happy, thrilled they could compete.”
The pool in Penticton was closed from March to August 2020. That forced members of the KISU club to train in a pair of local lakes from mid-June to July.
“Depending on which way the wind was blowing we could go the lake that was sheltered,” said Hoeben.
The club bought four large buoys and placed them in the lake, creating a 100-metre loop for swimmers. Coaches ran practices from paddleboards.
“It worked out surprisingly well,” said Hoeben. “It was somewhat hard to tell how it was working when we were in there because the times were all very approximate.
“When we did get back in the pool, the kids that practiced in the (lake) were definitely fitter than the kids that didn’t swim in the lake .”
With no nearby lake the Piranhas did dryland training on a football field before returning to their pool at the Eastlink Centre.
“We’re just following the guidance Alberta Health have put out there and obviously working with the facility management to provide a safe environment,” said Dawson.
FAST trains in three different pools, each with different rules.
“We just follow their rules,” said Ramsey. “We just have to have operational plans.
“If the rules change in the province or the facility, we have to communicate that. There has to be a lot more communication to parents.”
All the clubs say staying engaged with the swimmers, even when facilities were closed, was important.
“Swimming and sports (for) kids, it’s therapy to them, it’s their mental health,” said Ramsey. “They really missed that when it was suddenly gone.”
FAST coaches tried to fill the void by using Zoom to conduct weekly yoga sessions and cooking classes.
“A lot of stress was happening in the world and they lost the thing that actually kept them balanced,” said Ramsey. “We felt like we really had to try to step up. We tried to be very creative in the things we did.”
With restrictions being lifted swimmers seem anxious to return to clubs. Hoeben, Dawson and Ramsey say their enrollments are close to pre-pandemic levels or even higher.
In Grande Prairie, there were about 100 swimmers in the competitive program and 300 in learn-to-swim classes pre-COVID. Now Dawson has 120 competitive swimmers and over 500 taking lessons.
Dawson credits a good relationship with facility operators and the community for the increased numbers.
“As a club we’ve worked really hard over the pandemic to retain membership,” he said. “We’ve been given that opportunity to increase our water time and reach further into the community to gain more members.
“We worked really hard over the summer to get a real good startup. We started our season early, we had our registrations out there. We hit Sept. 1 at full steam, bigger than we’ve ever been.”
Toth said Flatland Swimming has seen its numbers increase to 100 swimmers from 75 prior to the pandemic, including at least one new Para swimmer. He credits the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games for inspiring some newcomers, plus the club’s efforts to keep swimmers motivated during provincial shutdowns.
When pools were closed in Regina, the club rented a private weight room for dryland training. Swimmers also went to a local farm to pull tires around.
Toth made sure everyone was treated equally.
“Everyone had equal playing time,” he said. “It didn’t matter how good they were.”
Ramsey said the competitive program at FAST has seen its numbers drop to 83 from 91 after nine swimmers graduated. The numbers for the pre-competitive program remain about the same with a waiting list.
Also, the University of New Brunswick swim team has expanded its program, reducing the amount of pool time available to FAST.
“We have a lower capacity,” said Ramsey. “We can’t bring a lot more in because we don’t have the capacity right now. It’s just space.”
In Swift Current, Jadid still has a group of around 24 competitive swimmers. Overall, the club’s numbers have fallen from 134 before COVID to about 94 this year.
The club has reached out through social media plus radio and newspaper to increase membership.
“We didn’t get what we had pre-COVID but we’re doing good,” said Jadid. “The kids are happy we have a routine now.
“Hopefully we can get better.”