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The Solace Of Water: Swimming And Aquatics During COVID-19

A child in goggles and swimming wings on a bed.
Annie Cooper, Courtesy
A "Swim With Annie" student has a virtual, dry swimming lesson.

Warmer weather beckons, and after being in lockdown due to COVID-19, we are all clamoring to get outdoors more. Soon, we may even want to jump into the nearest public pool, lake, river or favorite secret swimming spot. But what does a pandemic do to swim instruction and learning water safety?

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Annie Cooper, instructor at Swim With Annie, and Laura Matuszak, who owns and operates Green Mountain Aquatics. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: I understand you were giving swim lessons just in early March when you realized essentially you're going to have to make some pretty dramatic changes to the way that you run your business. Take us back to that moment in March.

Annie Cooper: On March 4th, after we all came back from school vacation ... My concern started to rise. I stopped altogether with any lessons on the afternoon of March 9th. A couple of weeks later, Laura and I started texting.

We were on the phone for hours. Laura helped me figure out about what to apply for to get my finances in order, and we got creative.

We were talking about how to give people, during the pandemic, that feeling that Laura and I both know water gives us, the value of how water can hold you. And how water holds you and serves you best emotionally.

Laura Matuszak, jump in here. Some of us swim for pleasure. But for you, for Annie, for your high-level swimmers, it sounds like swimming and aquatics is really much more than that.

Laura Matuszak: I think of how water itself is a safe place for us emotionally, physically, and how that was such a loss that we weren't really discussing with so much other loss in place.

So what came of you two putting your heads together to try and continue swim instruction?

Annie Cooper: What came of that was I offered six weeks worth of online swim lessons, virtual swim lessons. It could offer something like Laura and I were talking about, that connectivity, that bringing back. To find some way to maintain that feeling that we're missing right now, that ability to be in water.

And through that six weeks, I learned a lot about how to be with people. And so I offered this virtual online thing. And now lately, I've started to teach bathtub swim lessons. It's been working beautifully because really parents have the ability to set the stage for swimming in their bathtub, in their homes.

Laura, can you speak to what public pools and swim meets might look like?

Laura Matuszak: I think that pools will open this summer. I'm hopeful for that. I say this a lot now: We don't really know. You know, of course, we're waiting for any information, any guideline from the governor.

Right now, I think just as that is getting started, the recommendation is, you know, maybe let's hold off on opening big public pools or big public beaches for a little bit of time so we can figure out what's going on in terms of instruction and what that's going to look like. All sorts of different organizations provide some guidance. But really, it comes down to whatever is happening in your state, in your locality.

I can speak to swim team. We are imagining is potentially one athlete in a lane at a time, or maybe two athletes in the lane at the time, separated. So just thinking through how to do social distancing within that setting, and how to make that feasible and safe for everybody and make sure that families feel safe in that environment, too. We do want families, of course, to be able to come in and watch their athletes swim and practice.

And Laura, I understand you were meant to be running the organization of heats on the pool deck of the Olympics this year. How are you faring?

Laura Matuszak: My schedule's opened up, so we have more family time! So no complaints about that part.

But thinking about our greater family, our swimming family, you know, that really directed a lot of the efforts from the USA Swimming and was thinking about how to help our best athletes be in the best position to showcase their abilities.

USA Swimming asked the International Olympic Committee to stop the Olympic Games this year, to postpone them. I got an email yesterday, and we're still planning to go through with the 2021 Olympic trials and that's going to be in Omaha, Nebraska.

Hopefully we'll be able to host some level of an event. And who knows? We don't even know if they'll be able to be spectators. So that's unfortunate from an income standpoint. So a lot of this is balancing act, like any local business. How do you make it work with fewer numbers or more restrictions? We're still serving our community. We want to serve our community.

I understand you're both planning to get together with some other high-level swimmers and talk about what it could look like as we edge closer towards a world where pools and gyms and lake fronts are open?

Annie Cooper: There are all kinds of conversations about what it's going to look like, what the spacing is going to look like, because even though chlorine is known to not carry the virus, the fact remains that in swimming, you're very close to each other when you wait your turn in the lane, when you're in the middle of a set.

And so I know there's conversations about hands touching, hands might be OK in the water if you're teaching swimming.

I bet you that parents who used to not have a handle on some of the things their kids did, probably have a stronger relationship with their child or what they can rely on them for, because we've been in this bananas situation. And so I think that we can rely on children sooner to become independent in water.

I believe that what's going to come of this is a stronger swim community, more dedicated to community. And I trust our facilities here in Vermont. They are there to be trusted in this new way, because keeping children safe in water is our job.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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