One meet, nine cities: How top U.S. swimmers finally returned to the pool

Mask off and goggles on, Ashley Twichell was back on the starting block for the first time in months, excited for an unconventional swimming race in these unprecedented times. Music was playing in the Greensboro (North Carolina) Aquatic Center on Thursday evening, but the only other sound came from the smattering of fellow swimmers seated in the stands, all strategically positioned at least 10 feet apart.

Twichell was the first to touch the wall in the 800-meter freestyle race, half a pool length and nearly 11 full seconds ahead of anyone else. But she had no idea how she’d fared in the U.S. Open event, the first major American swim meet in more than eight months.

Her competition was scattered across eight other cities, including Indianapolis, where events are scheduled through Saturday at the Indiana University Natatorium.

Some of Twichell’s competitors had already finished racing. Others wouldn’t hit the water for a few more hours still.

“It’s a lot different than we’re used to,” Twichell, 31, said in a telephone interview shortly after her race. “But it’s still racing, so we’ll take it. I’ll just have to see what happens.”

The event was originally scheduled for December in Georgia. But the prospect of asking hundreds of swimmers to travel and pile into the same building amid the coronavirus pandemic increasingly felt untenable. USA Swimming officials knew they’d need to be creative.

“We were really in bit of a quandary. Should we go forward?” said Mike Unger, the chief operating officer of USA Swimming. “We said, yeah, let’s try it. We have to kind of take baby steps, and this is a good first step.”

The solution was a swim meet that’s spread across nine sites located in three times zones. The field features some 1,200 athletes. There are 30 Olympians and nearly 50 U.S. national team members among them, including Twichell, who’s already qualified for next year’s Olympics in the 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) open water event.

A few Tokyo medal favorites are skipping the competition. Caeleb Dressel and Lilly King have been competing in the International Swimming League’s month-long tournament in Budapest. Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel opted to focus on their training. If they traveled to one of the U.S. Open sites, they would have had to isolate for five days and undergo coronavirus testing before being allowed to resume workouts on the Stanford campus.

For many, the U.S. Open event marks the first real competition in 8-½ months. The entire swim calendar was wiped clean during the pandemic, and most of the country’s top swimmers haven’t raced since the TYR Pro Swim Series event in early March in Des Moines.

“Any chance you can get on those blocks and just race, it’s a tremendous feeling,” said Ryan Lochte, who’s targeting his fifth Olympics next summer. “The first couple races I’ll definitely be shaking the cobwebs off. But it’s a steppingstone, just seeing where I’m at and seeing what I got to work on for the next couple of months.”

Lochte, 36, isn’t tapering or shaving for the meet. He’ll tackle five events from the Sarasota, Fla., site. Without spectators in the stands or the toughest competition in the same pool, he expects it to feel more like a practice session.

But because he hasn’t competed since March and was sidelined for several weeks after undergoing appendicitis surgery in August, Lochte said the event will serve as an invaluable measuring stick as the Tokyo Games, now scheduled for July, draw closer.

“It’s going to be weird,” said Lochte, owner of 12 Olympic medals, including six golds. “But we got to roll with the punches. It’ll probably be odd for everyone, but we’re all in the same boat, and you just take what you can get.”

Swimmers at every site will encounter a variety of safety measures, including temperature checks and health questionnaires. There will be limited officials and coaches on hand, and likely no more than 225 people in the building at any given time. Swimmers will have assigned seats in the stands and will be required to remain socially distant. Masks will be required by everyone. Swimmers will have to wear them right up until they climb on the starting block, and there will be limited windows for warm-up and cool-down swims.

“There is no blueprint for this,” said Adam Kennedy, the meet director at the Richmond site. “We’re hosting swim meets every single week usually. But the new normal is every single week is different and we’re reinventing the wheel every single week.”

National meets typically include preliminary heats before the top racers square off in the finals. This week’s event is essentially a massive timed final for each distance. Racers will have one chance to get to the wall as fast as they can. The times from all nine sites will then be combined in an overall result.

Twichell finished Thursday’s 800-meter race in 8 minutes 33.58 seconds. Two hours earlier, she’d watched a live-stream of the competition from the Indianapolis site on her phone in the parking lot outside the Greensboro natatorium, so she knew her time was four seconds slower than Ally McHugh had already posted. It wasn’t until the race in Beaverton, Ore., wrapped up three hours later that Twichell learned she’d finished fourth overall.

“Of course we’d love to be together and racing side by side. But this is still good and helps,” said Twichell. “It just felt good to get back out there and get this race under my belt.”

USA Swimming has plans for four national events in 2021 before the U.S. Olympic trials in June. The first is slated for Jan. 14-17 in Richmond, Va., and officials are hopeful that meet can be staged under normal conditions. Another is scheduled for Indianapolisfor May12-15.

While they’re eager to give racing opportunities to as many people as possible, events like this week’s also serve as vital Tokyo prep for the top American swimmers.

“We kept hearing, ‘We need to get back to racing,'” Unger said. “When you don’t have the anticipation of a competition in front of you, it makes it very difficult to keep training with focus and intensity. To me, that’s the biggest thing. You want to have something to look forward.”

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