ASTON – At first blush, Tuesday seemed a weird day for Nicole Ferraccio to don a racing suit.
The atmosphere at Northley Middle School, where Sun Valley swims its varsity meets, occupied an uncanny space between practice and a meet. It was technically the latter, a virtual meet in which Sun Valley and its Ches-Mont foes swam separately and compare times after the fact. The timing system, the officials (with hand-held whistles, no respiratory droplets required), were all there, down to the post-meet cheer for the unseen opposing team. But on deck, it was just the Vanguards, swimming against themselves.
And so for Ferraccio, a solid high school swimmer who doesn’t train year-round, Tuesday was as good a time as any to break out the racing suit and try to put down a fast time.
“It’s hard because you have to get into it and sometimes you do have to swim alone,” Ferraccio said. “Senior year, it’s hard because I went from junior year almost making it (to districts), and last year I expected to make it to districts (this year) and competing, but COVID definitely set me back. Hopefully next meet, I can get there or maybe get close.”
Such is the challenge of swimming during COVID-19, where the mass of cheering humanity that is a high school meet is anything but social-distancing compliant. So teams have had to get creative.
In the Ches-Mont, that means a season of unscored virtual meets. Each school competes at home on designated days. Times are submitted and compared across the league, mainly to allow swimmers to see where they stand. The meets aren’t scored, for several reasons, among them recognition that swimmers are in very different places in their training because of pandemic-related disruptions. It also frees coaches to allow swimmers to do what’s best for them, rather than focusing on points.
So it was for Sun Valley Tuesday, over a crisp hour and 20 minutes (in part because of only one diver). It required the team to create its own energy. Whether hovering over Lane 6 to cheer on a swimmer or an explosion of noise as the A and B 200 freestyle relays raced, it felt for moments like a high school meet.
“I’m really happy to have them back this year and be with them,” former assistant coach and first-year head coach Angela Shicatano said. “They are enjoying this whole season. It ultimately didn’t even matter to them what the season looked like, just the fact that they could get in and race again, it makes all the difference.”
Shicatano’s focus as a coach has had to shift. It’s not about scoring points or winning meets. Instead, the goals are more rudimentary. It’s about day-to-day improvement. It’s a longer game, getting kids to love the sport for the long-term health benefits. It’s about a collective social and athletic experience.
That was the thinking last week when the team decided to do something different for senior recognition, an intrasquad meet where swimmers picked teams and swam against each other. The idea of breaking up the regimented schedule of a normal season with such a meet is unheard-of. But for the moment Sun Valley finds itself in, it felt perfect.
“The goal was to give the kids an opportunity to not only take on some of the roles that coach Emily (Skwirut) and I do together, but to plan this whole meet and kind of leave a legacy,” Shicatano said. “I asked them about it, and I said, how do you feel about doing this, and they said, we feel great because the pressure is off. It’s strictly for fun and they get a chance to swim things that they normally wouldn’t swim and they get to organize and really get that team unity back again.”
The changes have hit swimmers differently. For senior Nick Fursman, who swims year-round with the Ridley Rays YMCA team, training has been cut back but still relatively high-level. YMCA Nationals, the centerpiece meets of the season, were cancelled for 2020 and 2021, but he’s still in the water regularly.
When it comes to racing, the breaststroker has to get imaginative in high school meets, with no one on the Vanguards roster able to stick with him in most events. “I try to imagine there’s a swimmer next to me, swimming right on pace with me to try to get my times down, try to get better,” he said.
Ferraccio isn’t a club swimmer. She competes in the summer with Brookhaven and depends on the high school campaign to lower times. She earned a District 1 consideration time last year and hoped to improve that this year to an auto cut, but progress has been slow and occasionally frustrating. Hence the suit Tuesday, with Sun Valley combining boys and girls heats for brevity’s sake, giving Ferraccio someone to race. She was pleased with the 1:04.69 she posted in the 100 butterfly, a season-best and within reach of the 1:02 she was at least year (and faster than the boy in the race).
Part of the challenge for Shicatano is contextualizing, especially for someone like Ferraccio. The usual calendar of speed gains and time drops in a season is moot. Where six weeks of hard work on a strong offseason base would previously have borne fruit, all the changes to training mean that doesn’t happen, especially without one-on-one racing. In adjusting expectations, she’s also changing how her pupils view the feedback from the clock.
“I’m not concerned about how do you compare to the girl at Unionville? How do you compare to the boy at Rustin?,” Shicatano said. “It’s not a priority right now because it’s not about scoring points. And I’m really fortunate that the Ches-Mont decided to go with this format this year because it does put more compatibility with the kids and how they want to swim. They want to swim to get better for themselves.”
Ferraccio seems to understand that. But you can hear in her voice a nagging disappointment.
“It’s definitely hard because talent can only take you so far, and so can practice,” she said. “You definitely need someone there to compete against, because they push you 100 percent. The last few meets, I’ve been swimming by myself and the times haven’t been so good, so now that I got to race somebody, my times are better.”