Is the pandemic one of those world events where we’ll all remember exactly where we were when we realized, holy crap, shit’s getting real? For me, the reality sank in in phases, but when it really became real was on March 12, as I sat in the bleachers at a swim meet that all the kids were pumped about. It was a big deal meet for some reason, I don’t remember why; I think maybe it was their last chance to get times to qualify for nationals, a big meet in Orlando that everyone wanted to go to.
As I sat on a metal bench with another mom, the pool deck in disarray as coaches and officials made decisions on what to do about the meet, we both panic-scrolled our phones for news. We blurted headlines we came across.
“The NBA just canceled the rest of the season.”
“‘Disney World closes because of coronavirus outbreak.'”
And then the one that affected us, right there, in that moment. “‘USA Swimming to cancel all events for 30 days amidst coronavirus pandemic.'”
It was at a swim meet that the shutdown began for us, that the coronavirus became real in our lives. The officials ran the meet that night since we were already all there, and then the rest of the meet was canceled. Along with the rest of the season. No qualifying times. No nationals in Orlando. No swim camp. No more practice. No more pool.
You were all there, you know the “no more…” story.
For the past seven years, it sometimes felt like we’ve lived half our lives at swimming pools. For the past seven months, I haven’t stepped foot on a pool deck. I haven’t smelled chlorine air. I haven’t heard the echoing splashes of swimmers diving, freestyling, flying, and flip-turning in the cavernous aquatic center. I haven’t watched kids wish each other good luck at the starting blocks, or count laps for each other, or grin when they see their time on the board, or walk dripping to their coach for a post-race debrief.
This weekend, that changed. Our daughter’s team is doing small meets just for their team, with limited numbers of lanes, no spectators, and a skeleton crew of volunteer officials and timers to run the meet. Getting a spot as a timer or other official is the only way to see our kids swim now.
I was near tears for the entire three hours I was there. I hadn’t been inside since that fateful March 12 day, when the pandemic became real on the metal bleachers at a swim meet.
I got to see the kids swim again this weekend. We’ve been with these kids since they were six, seven, eight years old. They’re 14 and 15 now, and they’re still swimming. I had gotten used to seeing them all the time, at practice, at meets. This weekend, my eyes teared up every time one of our daughter’s friends was anywhere near the lane I was timing and I got to watch them swim. My throat stung when our own daughter was in the pool. Seven months is the longest we’ve gone without seeing her swim since 2012.
The meet this weekend was very different from pre-pandemic meets. For one thing, instead of hundreds of kids from all the neighboring states and northern Virginia, plus all their parents and coaches, it was just our team and the small group of volunteers there to support the meet. Where it’s usually shoulder to shoulder on the pool deck, there was mostly open space, with the occasional person here or there carrying out their duty. I had a clear line of sight to every wall, every corner in the aquatic center.
To keep the meet safe and follow CDC guidelines, each lane had one timer instead of two, in order to space the volunteers out. The swimmers had to wait until their heat was next to approach the starting area; in previous times they’d be lined up 4 and 5 deep behind the starting block. The deck had a traffic flow — clockwise around the pools — and the kids each had a small round laundry basket for their towel, heat sheet, and whatever else they might carry around. Like all of us, they wore masks any time they weren’t at the starting block or in the pool; they threw their masks in their baskets when it was their turn to swim. They were all diligent about wearing their masks. If they were breathing too hard to put on a snug, often wet, mask after their race, they’d cover their nose and mouth with a towel.
The meet was quieter, and emptier, and more intimate than usual. My eyes stung the whole time, not from the chlorine, but from being there in that space that had become such a big part of our lives: smelling the chlorinated air, feeling the humidity, hearing the splashes and the whistles and the “take your mark.” I got choked up seeing the kids get a chance to race, to set new times, to compete, to get nervous and feel excited and laugh and swim, to do this thing they love so very much. To have a small sense of normalcy in their lives.