For a majority of parents and swimmers, the pending re-opening of swimming pools around Australia and in many other countries is a big step back to re-gaining some normality in their life. The announcements that pools can re-open under strict guidelines have started. The swimming bags are packed, training equipment has been disinfected and all we are waiting for now is the email or message from the coach to say “we start back on this day”.
But for many, the celebrations will go on hold very quickly as aquatic facilities, program managers and swim coaches work through the logistics of the restrictions placed upon them if they re-open. Many are waiting for public health orders to even be allowed to open and others are preparing their COVID-19 safety guidelines and procedures for their operations.
Most aquatic facilities will re-open when it is safe and financially viable to do so. This will not necessarily be the date that has been publicly provided by government leaders. If it is financially and operationally viable to open the pool, facility managers will then need to decide who can utilise the pool. If numbers are restricted, many Councils will use a booking system for lap swimming and it is unlikely that squads will be allowed to swim as the community may take up all the places.
Club’s will need to work through with the facility operators to secure pool space at a reasonable rate and be on the same page in regards to policies, procedures and guidelines around the health and safety of all users.
For many clubs or programs, starting squads back with limited numbers allowed in the water at any one time will create issues around the financial viability of the program. Low user numbers will mean low income – if groups are limited to 10 or even 20, income will be limited. The aim for each program must be to break-even in most situations. A return to the pool may be cost prohibitive. Clubs and program operators cannot afford to run at a loss so they may have to make a hard decision and not start back until the restrictions on numbers have been eased. Charges to families may also be higher due to small numbers.
In many cases, squads will not look the same. Coaches will have to group swimmers by the numbers permitted and that group will train together whenever they train. By doing this, it is easy to recognise which swimmers or families may have been exposed to coronavirus if someone was unfortunate enough to get it within that group. They will also know that members of each group should not have been in contact with each other, at least at the facility.
Coaches will then have to decide which swimmers can come back to training. This decision will invariably depend on the numbers allowed in the pool, the number of lanes available, the number of swimmers allowed in each lane and the length of time the pool is available. This will vary from club to club however what we do know is that it will not be the same as normal.
Many clubs will choose to bring an older group of swimmers in first. These athletes will be more likely to follow social distancing guidelines and will be able to raise any concerns they have with the coaches and facility so that improved steps can be implemented before younger swimmers return. They will also be good role models when more participants are allowed to attend the pool. Talking last week with a leading coach in a high profile program, he explained that swimmers training 8 times a week for 2 hours have ‘missed’ the equivalent of 128 hours of training in the last 8 weeks. Swimmers who train 3 times a week for 1 1/2 hours have ‘missed’ the equivalent of 36 hours of training. It is therefore much more important for the older more accomplished swimmers to be the first groups back into the pool and then other age groups can re-join over time. It may take 12 to 16 weeks before all squads are back in the water on a regular basis.
What I can say is that I haven’t spoken with a coach yet who is not keen to get everyone back ASAP, and I encourage parents of swimmers who may not be invited back to the pool immediately or are offered a very reduced session load, to remain supportive of the club, program and coaches. When squads return they may initially have reduced time, for example 45min session and then have 5-10 minutes to pack up and leave the centre, before the next group enters and is in the pool 5 minutes later for their 45min session. This may happen multiple times each morning and night.
So, while governments and those in authority make announcements around pools re-opening, facility managers, pool operators, clubs and coaches may have many other issues to consider before everything is back to normal. Parents and swimmers will have to be patient…. just for a little bit longer.