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When he was a standout swimmer at Indiana University back in 1981, Kevin Auger participated in a “virtual” dual swim meet against the Soviet Red Army team. At the height of the Cold War, the two opponents traded faxes comparing times and the Hoosiers won bragging rights.
Now almost 40 years later the veteran Evanston coach is in the unique position of leading the Wildkits through an entirely virtual season.
The coronavirus pandemic will profoundly affect swimming, possibly more than any other sport, as the Kits await their virtual season opener set for Friday against Loyola Academy.
Swimmers from competing schools won’t race in the same pool this year, at least not in the Central Suburban League. Instead, dual meet foes (there won’t be any multi-school invitationals in 2020) will time their own competitors in their own pools, then compare times via a computer program set up by Auger to determine a “winner” in those meets.
No relay races will be held, only individual races and diving, and spectators won’t be allowed, either.
The Illinois High School Association won’t be conducting state final competitions in any fall sport. Swimmers typically build toward that final weekend both physically and mentally with their training, and now they’ll have to settle for aiming at those state qualifying standards even though there’s no reward for those who do succeed.
With no state medals on the horizon in 2020, personal records are the best outcomes most can hope for.
Now it’s up to Auger and his coaching staff to make the most of a difficult situation.
“When we swam against the Russians, the way we did it was a good way for us to get excited about swimming fast,” Auger said. “As far as our motivation this year, I think they’re just happy to be back in the pool right now. And 90 percent of them have PRs as their goals anyway, because not everyone gets to go to a sectional or State.
“I’ve seen Olympic swimmers who win the gold medal but aren’t happy if they don’t get a PR with it. Doing their best times is ingrained in them ever since they start swimming, and I think that’s the biggest motivation. Those state qualifying standards are still there to shoot for, and, as far as I’m concerned, if you go under the cut, to me that’s going to be the same as making it to State.
“I think we can ramp the kids up enough talking about faster times, and providing competition within our own team. I think they’re craving swimming more than ever right now.”
The fact that a record turnout of swimmers and divers — 95 for the preseason workouts that will lead to an abbreviated 8-week season — is present backs up the hunger that Auger sees daily at the ETHS pool. Most serious swimmers also participate in the club season, which was also wiped out by the current pandemic.
The large turnout forced Auger to add 3 more coaches to his staff. The freshman class is huge, numbering 31 so far, and diving coach Aaron Melnick will have 10 hopefuls to work with along with returning veteran Liz Budde.
The Wildkits will count on a core of seniors Caroline Chapon, Erin Long, Natalie Long, Samantha Rhodes and Mackenzie Tucker, along with junior Lily Consiglio. That’s a group that, under normal circumstances, would be a threat to crack the top 10 at State as a team, perhaps even the top 5.
That unit was responsible for taking down school records in both the 400 and 200-yard freestyle races last year at the sectional qualifying meet, and Erin Long also earned a school record in the 100 freestyle (in 51.26), erasing a 35-year-old mark set by ETHS Hall of Famer Stacy Cassiday. Long also placed 10th at State in the 200 freestyle.
With no relay races, those school records will stand at least until 2021. The reasons are still murky as to why no relays can be held even in virtual meets where schools would be responsible only for distancing 4 swimmers of their own, per lane.
“I’m not even sure why there are no relays and I was shocked when I heard that,” Auger said. “It must have been decided at some governmental level, by people who don’t understand the mechanics of swimming. Someone way up the ladder made that decision. We could have (safely) alternated lanes for the races and they don’t come in contact with each other, or the same surfaces. I wish we could have at least put together 4-flat start races and combined them (to get a relay clocking). It’s disappointing.
“It will be interesting with no relays. Technically, girls will be able to swim 4 events still, but I can’t imagine having anyone do that in a meet that will only take about an hour. Friday we’re going to try some girls in 3 events — we’ll see who can handle that.”
Erin Long’s load will be lighter, at least for the opener Friday, because she missed a couple of training weeks due to an appendix operation and isn’t 100 percent yet. She’ll likely swim the 50 and 100 freestyle versus Loyola.
Rhodes returns as one of the state’s best in the 100 breaststroke and 200 individual medley, and will also compete in the 100 freestyle. Natalie Long and junior Jenna Wild provide strength in the distance races, the 500 and 200 freestyle, and Chapon and Tucker are IM mainstays in perhaps the squad’s deepest event overall.
Consiglio will be a factor in a variety of races, from the 50 freestyle to the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, and help will also come from sophomore Karolien Van Mieghem, juniors Emma Nissan (200 and 500 freestyle) and Kate Seward (200 and 500 freestyle).
Others to watch in the 100 breaststroke are junior Annika Macy and senior Claire Kennedy. Kennedy dropped her time 4 seconds at the end of her junior season and just missed qualifying for State.