Swimming: Virtual meets add competition to unusual season

Dave Purpura
ThisWeek group
Dublin Jerome's D.J. Lloyd competes in the 100-yard butterfly during a virtual meet against Marysville on Jan. 8 at the Dublin Community Recreation Center. Several central Ohio programs have scheduled virtual meets to provide extra competition during a season in which attendance is limited and larger meets have been canceled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Given attendance restrictions and safety precautions amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Emma Hogan knew this season would be unlike any other in her career.

Even so, Hogan, a senior on the New Albany girls swimming and diving team, never foresaw a race in which the Eagles’ opponents weren’t in the same city, let alone the same pool.

A Dec. 11 meet against Dublin Jerome went on as scheduled, with a few caveats.

The Eagles swam in their home pool and the Celtics in theirs at the Dublin Community Recreation Center, about 15 miles away. New Albany competed during its practice time while Jerome – the designated home team – treated the event as a normal meet, complete with limited spectators as well as parents handling the timing, because the facility already had been reserved when the original schedule was released.

Both teams entered their times into Meet Manager, the computer program they use for all competitions, then Jerome combined the results and determined winners.

“I had no idea who I was racing against or what times they had,” Hogan said, adding that she and her teammates found it difficult to motivate themselves for the meet. “It was definitely weird.”

A few days later, Jerome published the outcome on its athletics website. The Celtics girls won 114-52 and the boys earned a 108-59 victory.

“I asked my coach (how I compared). I heard from my friends how the other kids did,” New Albany boys swimmer Cade Helms said. “There was no atmosphere. You were just with your friends like a normal practice. I had to pretend I was racing someone from a different team.”

Several area teams are using virtual meets, first pushed by USA Swimming last spring for club teams as the pandemic worsened, to limit travel and add extra competitions during a shortened season. Most teams in the OCC were unable to stage official competitions until Dec. 18 – two weeks after the scheduled start of swimming season – because of a league rule that reflected a stay-at-home advisory in Franklin County.

“You get to swim with timing equipment and it reports to your high school a win or a loss, but you don’t get that head-to-head competition,” Watterson coach Dan Cherok said. “But under the restrictions, you’re happy to have almost anything.”

Jerome added virtual meets against Marysville on Jan. 8 and Pickerington North on Jan. 15. In the former, the Celtics competed while Dublin Coffman and Dublin Scioto practiced elsewhere in the pool.

“I basically emailed every OCC coach I could find (to schedule meets),” said Jerome coach J.J. Spangler, who was hired in October after six seasons as an assistant for Upper Arlington’s boys team. “It was a scramble to get the schedule together, and it’s tough for a lot of teams to find pool space.”

Large meets, such as the Ned Reeb Invitational in mid-December at Ohio State and the Northeast Classic in mid-January at Branin Natatorium in Canton, were canceled to limit travel and the number of competitors and spectators in one facility.

While the CCL still is holding its league meet Jan. 30 at St. Charles, the OCC canceled the meets for each of its five divisions scheduled for Jan. 30 and 31.

Sectional meets are scheduled for Feb. 13 at Columbus Academy, the Delaware YMCA, the Dublin Community Recreation Center, the Hilliard YMCA, New Albany, St. Charles, Thomas Worthington, Upper Arlington and the Westerville Community Center.

The Division II district meet will be Feb. 18 at Bowling Green, followed by Division I three days later in the same facility. Both will have separate girls and boys competitions.

The state meet will remain at Branin Natatorium and take place over four days from Feb. 24-27, but preliminaries will be eliminated and divisions and genders will be separated. The Division II girls meet will be Feb. 24, followed by Division II boys, Division I girls and Division I boys.

“We are planning on the same number of (state) qualifiers,” said Tim Stried, director of communications for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, who added that the postseason will not include virtual competitions.

The number of district qualifiers had not been determined as of Jan. 20.

In a normal year, 30 swimmers compete in each event at district. The state meet features 24 swimmers in each event. 

If that remains, seasons would end in a much more typical fashion than they started.

“Back when we didn’t know the unknown, whether we would have any meets, we had to start thinking outside the box,” New Albany coach Dave Wharton said of virtual meets. “It’s still not the same as competing against another person, another team. It’s safe but it’s not as competitive.”

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave