Bob Johnston has coached high school swimmers since the 1970s, but nothing in his career prepared him for what he’ll encounter this season.

Johnston and his Cony swim team began individualized workouts last week at the Kennebec Valley YMCA in Augusta. Johnston said the Rams have 15 swimmers this year, and with eight lanes to practice in, they can spread swimmers out to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“Last week was pretty much dedicated to what’s called ‘skills and drills,’ which was mandated to us by the MPA” Johnston said. “We coaches were on deck, we were all masked. The Y does an interesting thing, they kind of lock down the whole pool area. The kids have to come in one door, they get checked for symptoms, they get their temperatures checked when they come through the door. They’re ready to swim right then, they just put their shoes in a little tray and they’re good to go.”

Cony joins a handful of swimming and diving teams that have opened workouts. Messalonskee had its first get-together Monday night at the Alfond Youth and Community Center in Waterville. With over 30 swimmers on the team this season, new Messalonskee head coach Tom Sheridan has divided his workoutsby gender.

“We’re excited to get going,” Sheridan said. “I think we’re around 16 boys and 16 girls.”

Added Mt. Ararat girls head coach Tracy Boucher, whose team is working out at the Wiscasset Community Center: “It’s been hectic, but I’m just so happy that we are able to get into a pool.”

Swimming coaches are also getting prepared for the possibility of virtual meets. Those would work like this: Athletes would participate in events at their home pool, with times recorded and shared with an opponent that was doing the same at its home facility. For example, Cony could compete at the Kennebec Valley YMCA against Waterville/Winslow, which would swim at the Alfond Youth and Community Center.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how they perform,” Johnston said. “Say you put your best swimmer in an event, you want to spread them out and put them in different events. Pushing themselves by swimming alone to go as fast as they can is a lot different than having someone right next to you, competing when you’re swimming against someone like Waterville, or Morse, someone like that. It’s certainly going to be different, but the kids, I think, are just thrilled to be back in the water, being able to compete.”

Boucher said Mt. Ararat has secured some time on Saturdays should a virtual meet be able to occur.

Gardiner/Hall-Dale head coach Rob Pekins said virtual meets could benefit new and younger swimmers adjust to high school competition.

“For those kids that are really competitors, it will be tough,” said Pekins, whose team has yet to swim because the high school is in remote learning.  “You don’t have someone from another team that’s just as fast or a little faster, hungry for your time, trying to catch you. That will be tough. But the kids who are coming in, and the kids who have never tried the sport, this will be a good season for them. There pool area won’t be as loud. The anxiety won’t be there, because it’s just going to be you and your teammates. I’ve got a lot of freshman coming in, and I’ve got a lot of upperclassmen who are going to try this for the first time. This is a perfect season for them to try to get in there. Building on that, those kids that have always been competitive, those kids have a chance, instead of worrying about beating the kid in the next lane, here’s your chance to build up their team and really concentrate on helping their other teams get better.”

A Cony High School swimmer comes up for air during practice Tuesday at the Kennebec Valley YMCA in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Morse coach Todd Marco also welcomed the idea of virtual meets this winter.

“I like the idea of the swimmers racing each other in our home pool, it would be a good challenge for all of us,” said Marco, whose team was able to get into the Bath YMCA this week after holding some dryland workouts last week. “We aren’t really thinking about meets yet, we are just hoping to get through the season uninterrupted and enjoy the opportunity we get to have time in the pool.”

Brunswick is also practicing at the Wiscasset Community Center three times a week. With only 18 swimmers allowed in the pool and with a roster of 26, first-year coach Amie Howard is continuing to work out the challenges to ensure her team can get into the pool.

“The number limit had made us change around our schedule a bit, but the students and the parents have been very accommodating,” Howard said.

As teams hope for some form of competition this winter, the emphasis in the early going is on conditioning and training.

“I’ve just been telling the guys to take the season day by day, but to enjoy the time that we are able to have in the pool together,” Mt. Ararat boys head coach Steve Butts said. “We have been working on our conditioning for now, but will expand our practice regime as the season progresses.”

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