WATERVILLE — Messalonskee junior Jadyn Arnold finished his 100-meter butterfly race, then looked up at the board as if to see how he finished.

He didn’t need to. He was the only one in the pool. Messalonskee’s opponent, Edward Little, wasn’t even in the building. Welcome to virtual swimming, as clear an example as any of just how much the pandemic has flipped high school sports on their head.

“It’s still bizarre,” Arnold said. “I feel like, when it’s virtual, it’s a little harder to get into that (competitive) mindset. I still have all my goals, I know that there’s a team I’m competing against, at least. But not having that other team there, it’s a little different.”

As much as the narrative changes on a weekly, if not daily basis, with COVID-19, we have seen a general trend of sports slowly going in the right direction towards normalcy.

We had championships in the spring after sports didn’t happen at all the previous year. We’ve had football games and wrestling meets this fall and winter after those sports sat out the previous year. And anyone going to a basketball game nowadays can see fans in the stands after games last year were played almost exclusively in the company of coaches, officials and school administrators.

But just as easily as you can go to a game or event that shows the progress, you can go to one that shows just how much work remains to be done, and how we’re getting closer to the finish line, but we’re not there yet. Normal is on its way, but there’s still plenty of weird out there.

“We have a long way to go,” Messalonskee swimming coach Carrie Thurston said. “There’s just never any consistency for the kids. They don’t know from day to day what’s going to change, or what isn’t going to change.”

Monday’s swim meet at the Waterville YMCA, showed the impact COVID still has on sports. Walking into the natatorium felt like stepping back into the months after the outbreak, when every sport was adapted heavily from its pre-pandemic form. Swimming meets can be one of the more raucous athletic scenes, with fans packed with screaming fans and the pool deck full of swimmers cheering on their teammates.

On Monday, though, for Messalonskee’s first and perhaps only virtual meet, the deck was mostly bare except for scorers and a corner where the Eagles were gathered. And some of the events featured a single swimmer in the pool, alone. The times were compared to the ones Edward Little was recording on its own to provide for the competition, but in a sport in which a swimmer normally is going against an opponent only a few feet to his or her side, it’s a drastic change.

“Part of what makes swimming such a competitive sport and what makes it such a good thing is that when you’re racing somebody else, you’re able to see your opponent,” junior Nigel Thurston said. “It’s a big adrenaline rush, it’s very fun to see how you do against others. In virtual meets, sometimes you can lose that and it doesn’t feel as competitive.”

Absent also was the rising din that comes from the fans and teammates when an event is reaching its conclusion. There’s only so much noise that can come from 16 people in the stands (I counted).

“Crowds, I love them, personally,” said Liana Arnold, a sophomore and Jadyn’s sister. “Also, I thrive under pressure, it’s pretty great. I just build off of it.”

Jadyn as a freshman won the 100 backstroke and was on two winning relays at the KVAC championships in 2020, and did it in front of that familiar  scene.

A Messalonskee swimmer flips through a turn during a virtual swim meet against Edward Little on Monday at the Alfond Youth & Community Center in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“I still have that feeling in me where I wish I could have those fans (at meets) again, and all that energy of other teams on deck and all the fans cheering for everyone,” he said. “That gives me my most energy, that helps me get to my goals. … I just really miss it.”

While COVID’s presence is still felt, so too is the high school athletes’ determination to get the most out of whatever altered version of their sport they have. Messalonskee swimmers enthusiastically cheered on their teammates — or teammate — in the pool, and the decibels did climb a few notches during a 200 free relay race that was decided by only 0.3 seconds.

We’re not at normal yet. But until we get there, athletes are going to appreciate what they do get to do.

“Any way to get in the pool and have a meet is fantastic,” Nigel Thurston said. “Just because it’s not against another team in person, that doesn’t take away from it. It’s still very fun.”

“Sometimes, you’ve got to take what you’re offered,” Jadyn Arnold added. “Think of the bright side. At least I’m swimming. At least I still can get personal best times, at least I can still try to improve.”

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