For 13 area swimmers, hearing the postponement of the PIAA Class AA championships due to the coronavirus firsthand struck a different nerve. The athletes were waiting in line for registration on March 12 at Bucknell University’s Kinney Natatorium when the sour news struck. On Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced state schools would be closed for two more weeks until at least April 6, adding more uncertainly to the possible resumption of the Class AA swimming championships.
“I was shocked. I was standing right by the lady that made the announcement,” Somerset junior Kaylee Richard said. “The whole team, we were listening in on what she had to say. It was devastating. It didn’t hit really with me until we were on the ride home. Everyone was quiet, no one wanted to talk.
“It was depressing almost.”
Just before they were ready to enter the pool for warm-ups, more questions than answers surrounded the minds of athletes who prepared rigorously all year to earn a spot along with the state’s elite swimmers.
“We were all pretty much in shock at first because we were just about to get in the pool and we were really excited,” Westmont Hilltop junior Lauren Mock said. “There was a lot of disappointment and shock.”
“At first, I didn’t know if it was a joke,” said Conemaugh Township sophomore Herman Zilch IV, who earned District 6 Class AA titles in the 100-yard backstroke and butterfly.
“After everyone started freaking out, I could tell that it was serious. I was a little upset about it, but there’s not much I could do about it.”
Sophomore Hannah Kane, junior Morgan McGuire, Richard and freshman Carly Richard won district titles in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, breaking the school record in the 200.
“Mock earned the District 6 200 freestyle crown and advanced in the 500 free. She also helped the 200 free relay team consisting of sophomores Ariel Pribozie, Alyssa Kush and Jasmine Innis qualify for the state meet.
Westmont Hilltop sophomore Cael Long prevailed in the 100 breaststroke for district gold, breaking a 20-year school record. The Hilltoppers’ 200 medley relay team comprised of freshman Landon Miller, sophomore Elijah Innis, Long and junior Nathaniel O’Stafy won district gold as well.
Advancing to Lewisburg is the goal of every state swimmer. Then having to deal with the continual coronavirus dominoes that have fallen since has prevented those athletes from training for the ultimate prize.
“It’s really difficult for us since we can’t get into a pool because all of the pools are closed now,” Westmont Hilltop coach Jay Hicks said.
“We pretty much have them doing their own workouts at home, trying to keep themselves loose and give them at least a little bit of physical conditioning. It’s really going to affect us being out of the water for so long. It’s been almost two weeks now.”
The delay has put the championship meet in serious jeopardy.
“I think it’s already too late for them to resume it,” Somerset coach Lauren Hershberger said. “Swimming is a totally different sport. In basketball, you can just pick up and play. You have to stay in the water or you lose all of what you built up in swimming.
“If they do try it, I sure hope that we’re given a little bit of period where the kids can get back in the water first. I think we’re going to have a lot of injury situations.”
As the school’s aquatic director, Hershberger received some positive news regarding the coronavirus spread.
“There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of pools and hot tubs,” Hershberger read off the Department of Health’s statement.
‘It’s pretty tough’
With schools and pools closed, preparing to compete against the best swimmers in the state is nearly impossible.
“It’s really hard to stay in actual swim shape,” Mock said. “It’s really easy to fall out of swim shape. I’m basically just trying to do ab workouts and arm workouts with weights that I can do at home.”
Zilch usually trains at the Greater Johnstown YMCA since Conemaugh Township does not have a swimming pool.
“Not being able to swim and get in a pool, it’s pretty tough,” Zilch said. “You’ve just got to run, and do push-ups and sit-ups to keep yourself in the best shape possible.”
Athletes are used to working within structured schedules. With no school and organized practices, managing free time has become a new challenge.
“It’s been crazy not being able to get in the pool, not being able to go to school,” Kaylee Richard said. “Being out of routine, it’s a weird feeling.
“There’s not really much that we can do out of the water except just mentally prepare ourselves. You can always work on abs or strength training, but nothing compares to actually being in the water in swimming.”
Being isolated from teammates who have grown into close friends is a new normal for athletes.
“It’s really hard. I have to say, I miss the girls a lot,” Kaylee Richard said. “I’ve been calling them the last couple days and last few weeks we’ve been stuck at home. I know they’re having a hard time not being together after spending every single day for so many months with each other.”
Finding a silver lining
Westmont Hilltop sent swimmers to the state meet for the first time in three years. Having advanced eight underclassmen to the state’s biggest stage and not getting to compete would be a rough ending to a promising season.
“That’s been their goal to get back to state competition,” Hicks said. “Our girls (200 free relay) have really been working hard. We came in seeded fourth and finished second. We were only about a half second off the first-place team (Somerset).
“We’ve been pretty dominant in that event the entire year,” Hicks said of the boys relay squad. “They really clicked. They really swam a fantastic race.”
Long is the only Westmont Hilltop swimmer to break a school record in the past 11 years and now holds two school marks.
The same Somerset quartet won two district relay championships.
“They worked hard, they beat their goals,” Hershberger said. “But one good thing is all four of these girls come back next year. If it isn’t this year, next year we’ll be just as strong, if not stronger.”
Kaylee Richard hopes all swimmers will get to compete for state supremacy in the coming weeks.
“I can only hope,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult for everyone since we’re all out of practice at this point. I don’t really see anyone performing to their maximum potential, if they do reschedule.”