Swimmers are used to ending a race a certain way. They touch the wall, and they pull their head out of the water and immediately look for the clock. What was their time? What was the time of the swimmer in the lane to the left or to the right? How did those swimmers they could feel pushing them to push a little harder make out?

This season, high school swimmers in Maine still complete that ritual at the immediate conclusion of a race, but now they only get their own results. The opponent already swam, or will later. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, all high school swim meets in the state this season are virtual.

Swimmers interviewed for this story are glad they get to compete, no matter what form that opportunity takes. Still, they acknowledge this has been anything but a normal season.

“I personally don’t see any benefit of (virtual meets), but I’ve made the most of it,” said Cony junior Emma Thomas, who won the Class A state title in the 200 yard freestyle in 2020.

“I don’t mind it. I’m a bit nostalgic for old meets, though,” added Sarah McNeil, a Waterville senior who swims for the combined Waterville/Winslow team. “The meets are very quick. It’s a lot less stressful. It’s not nerve-wracking without other teams.”

In central Maine, high school swim teams are competing in the time allotted them by their pool for practice time. Waterville/Winslow, for example, gets an hour at the Alfond Youth and Community Center in Waterville. After a 10-15 minute warmup, the team runs through the events of a meet. Some events are skipped, if the team doesn’t have any entries, and boys and girls often swim against each other in events to speed up the process.

Cony swimmer Tessa Jorgenson puts a mask back on after finishing the first leg of the 200 freestyle relay during a Feb. 5 virtual meet in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Events happen quickly. Swimmers are allowed to approach the blocks when their event is called. Masks come off just before swimmers get in the pool, and go back on as soon as they leave the water.

“It’s only our team. There’s no spectators and a limited number of parents helping out with timing,” said Alex Renaud, a Waterville senior.

It’s that lack of spectators swimmers find most jarring. The noise from cheering fans is a big part of a meet.

“Just the energy level around the pool feels lower. I thrive off other people. My teammates, we all push each other to make sure we give 100 percent,” Thomas said.

Added Jack Begin, a Cony senior: “We go in, we warm up, and we swim for 45 minutes or an hour. It kind of feels like a normal practice… Racing against somebody else (from another team), you find an extra gear. Racing against teammates, it’s kind of like a practice race.”

Coaches Rob Pekins, of Gardiner/Hall-Dale, and Bob Johnston, of Cony, said they’ve seen times a little higher than normally would be expected. That hasn’t meant swimmers aren’t competing enthusiastically. Johnston noted he has two members of his team, Jamison Russell and Addison Burnham, who are cousins and who have had tight races against each other.

“The boys and girls are in the pool together, so at least there’s competition there,” Johnston said. “The kids are competitive enough so they push each other… The times are good, just not as fast as in the past.”

Erskine Academy swim coach Susan Burke cheers on Lettie Rasch during a virtual meet Feb. 10 in Augusta. Rasch was competing in the 100-yard breaststroke alone in the pool. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Often, results of a meet aren’t known for a few days, simply because teams are swimming on different days. If an opponent swam before Cony, Johnston does not give his athletes a heads up on the times they need to swim to win their events.

“We don’t share times until we’re both done,” Johnston said.

“You’ll find out a few days later. ‘You won the 2 free at this meet.’ Oh, OK. It doesn’t give the same level of gratification,” McNeil said.

Without bleachers full of spectators and rivals from different schools in the other lanes, swimmers are finding motivation in a different ways. One is gratitude to be competing at all.

“We’re making the best of a bad situation,” Renaud said.

Emma Farnham is the lone swimmer from Winslow on the Waterville/Winslow team. This season, she set the goal of beating her personal times and setting Winslow High School records. Farnham set her school record in the 50 freestyle (25.68 seconds) and 500 freestyle (5:36.17). Having teammates cheer her on was key.

“I think our team does a good job pushing each other. That gives us motivation. That cheering makes it feel more normal,” Farnham said.

Lifeguard Ryan Emerson cheks the temperatures of Erskine Academy swimmers as they enter the Kennebec Valley YMCA on Feb. 10 for a virtual swim meet. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Last season was Begin’s first as a competitive swimmer. Last season was about getting faster each time he was in the pool.

“This year my approach is more of that. In that sense, it hasn’t been that big of an adjustment,” Begin said.

Pekins said his swimmers have become more technically sound this season, even if times are slightly down.

“They have more time to work on their strokes,” Pekins said. “I think all the kids are doing their best and are happy to be in the pool.”

The Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship meet is scheduled for the final week of February, and with no state meets, that will be the season. Johnston is glad his team has been able to get in close to a complete season.

“The kids are getting to swim, and that’s the important part,” he said.

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