Altered season hasn’t slowed down Mercury-area swimmers

Winter sports in the area have quite a different look this school year.

Whether it be the empty stands, athletes wearing masks during competition or seats on the bench spread six feet apart, the impact of precautions put in place for COVID-19 are quite apparent.

Though every athlete is facing circumstances like never before, no sport may have been impacted more than swimming.

A pause in December kept most swimmers out of the water for more than a month. When they returned, limited occupancy numbers in the pool and on the pool deck significantly altered the function of meets and practices.

The Mercury area swimmers who decided to compete this winter are taking it all in stride, even breaking records along the way.

“Everybody’s not in their top shape right now, but we’re finding ways to adjust,” Phoenixville senior Erini Pappas said last week. “It’s not that hard, but it’s a challenge being in this environment where we have to try and stay safe. It’s been a little rough, but we’re trying our best and it’s working so far.”

Phoenixville’s Penelope Pappas swims in the 200 medley relay at the 2020 PAC Championships. (Barry Taglieber – For MediaNews Group)

Governor Tom Wolf suspended high school sports in Pennsylvania from Dec. 12 through Jan. 4 due to concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Many teams weren’t able to get back in the pool until as late as Jan. 11.

During their time away, some teams used Zoom calls for dryland workouts. Coaches said athletes biked and ran to preserve cardio. Pappas did workouts outside at the YMCA, and also did some body combat (boxing workout) and body attack workouts at the Y.

Even for those who attempted to keep form, there was no way to replicate swimming shape without getting in the pool.

“It’s like starting over the season,” Perkiomen Valley coach Mitchell Zackowski said of when his team returned. “I went back to the practices we started at the beginning of the season. The yardage is cut back, the intensity is not as high and we used that week to gradually get into swimming shape. There’s still some swimmers who struggle, even to today, but that’s typical of a normal swimming season.”

“Right now I feel a lot better than I did in the beginning, but I would say it took like one or two weeks to feel back like myself,” Pappas said.

It didn’t take long for some of the top swimmers to get back in form.

Pappas broke a pool record at Owen J. Roberts in her second meet of the season, swimming a 58.69 in the 100 backstroke. OJR senior Dalton Fink clocked a pool-record 51.99 in the 100 back on the same day.

The next week, Jan. 28, OJR broke three of its pool records broken as Lauren Zelinske topped Pappas’ time in the 100 back (58.22) and the Wildcats’ 400 free relay teams of Natalie Spencer, Eliana Crew, Emery Horn and Zelinske (3:38.35) and Will Cano, Fink, Jonah Kasznay and Nathan VanNatter (3:13.71).

“Obviously the coaches have done a great job getting our opportunities to swim,” said OJR senior Kasznay, a member of the record-breaking 400 free relay. “This isn’t a perfect season. No one can say it is, but you’ve got to roll with the punches. The way that we’ve been doing things here is really effective.

“Coach has been helping as much as he can, but I also owe it a lot to our teammates. The freshmen this year, they came in and they’ve been having a good time. Team spirit is at an all-time high. We’re all helping each other, motivating each and other and I think that’s playing a large key into it.”

Owen J. Roberts and Pope John Paul II swimmers hold lap signs during a meet at OJR on Thursday. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Practice times are limited for high school teams.

Zackowski said he’s allowed to have 21 swimmers in the pool at time compared to 30-40 in years past. PV has four groups practicing from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. with most swimmers getting an hour in the pool and some district qualifiers/hopefuls practicing for closer to two hours. Even that time is reduced due to health and safety checks for swimmers before they get into the pool.

Phoenixville doesn’t have a pool at the high school, so Weinstein is thankful his group gets an hour at the local YMCA starting at 3 p.m. However, some kids don’t get out of virtual school until 3 p.m., cutting into their practice time.

Those like Kasznay and Pappas have been able to get in the pool more often than some of their peers by practicing with their club teams, where Pappas said she is being ‘whipped into shape.’

“It’s been great having that other opportunity to go to, but each practice is different, each coach is different, so it gives me different opportunities and different availability,” Kasznay said.

Zackowski and Weinstein have both seen personal bests recorded for some of their high-school only swimmers as well who haven’t had as much time in the pool as year’s past.

“The club swimmers, some of them have found places to keep in shape and train throughout this whole thing, so for those elite swimmers it hasn’t been too detrimental,” Weinstein said. “But I’m even seeing my high school-only swimmers, kids who have only been in the pool since Jan. 11, they are swimming faster now than they did a year ago having not practiced since the teens of November.”

“It is really interesting. I don’t know what it speaks to. Maybe they appreciate it more. Maybe they realize they can’t take anything for granted, and they take each opportunity and make the most of it at the meets.”

Zackowski said the ability for swimmers to succeed demonstrates the level of work ethic from his athletes.

“In my mind, the swimmers who want to excel and do well have found a way to get the training in, and they’re the ones who are doing well now,” Zackowski said. “It was obvious to me before, but it’s more obvious now that the ones who want to succeed are getting the training that they couldn’t do when we were shut down. It’s made the other swimmers on the team try harder to do better.”

Pope John Paul II’s relay team congregates in masks on the pool deck at Owen J. Roberts before swimming in a race Thursday. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Even though it feels like the high school season just got started, teams are closing in on the end of their meet seasons with two or three left on the schedule for most schools.

District 1 recently announced its championship meets will take place Feb. 26 and Feb. 27 at the Graham Aquatic Center in York, without spectators. The girls’ Class 2A and 3A championships will take place Feb. 26 with the boys championships to follow Feb. 27.

The diving championships are scheduled a week earlier at North Penn with the boys Class 2A and 3A field competing Feb. 19 and girls competing Feb. 20.

Revised District 1 qualifying times were announced on the district website Wednesday.

“Once the season started, we went from, ‘All right, we’re doing this so we have a sense of normalcy and do what’s best for kids’ mental and physical health,’” Weinstein said. “And now it’s come to like, ‘Oh, you mean we do have a district and state championship. Well let’s get fast and let’s make sure kids do what they would typically do in a pool.’ We’ve gone from 0 to 60.”

Teams typically have three months of training and a whole month of tapering for the championships meets. This season that timeline has been condensed to four weeks of training and two weeks of tapering.

Zackowski said his workouts have been high intensity with the reduced practice time. Weinstein said he has focused on getting his kids in physical form rather than making tweaks to technique.

“It’s definitely been shortened a lot and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” Zackowski said of the championship schedule.

Swimmers haven pleasantly surprised their coaches so far this season. Maybe that will continue as the continue to adjust on the fly.

“I wasn’t really expecting to have that end-of-season goal meet to go to because at the beginning of the season it was out of the question,” Pappas said. “We didn’t think we’d have any of those opportunities. I’m still looking forward to going to those meets. Those are always the best part of the season.”

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