Emma Chambers loves swimming. In fact, she enjoys competing in the water so much that a little chilly weather wasn’t about to stop her and her teammates at the Greater Philadelphia Aquatic Club from practicing this fall and into the winter.
Because of the pandemic, the club had been unable to use its usual facility, the indoor pool at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology. Instead, it now had two options: Find a place to swim outside or don’t swim at all.
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Members chose the former option. So the club, which is based in South Jersey, conducted outdoor workouts through Dec. 23 at Peachwood Swim Club in Swedesboro, Gloucester County. They swam there until Peachwood closed its pool for the winter.
Chambers and her teammates could describe outdoor swimming in the Northeast in November and December in one word:
The Greater Philadelphia Aquatic club consists of 210 members ages 6 to 18. Coach Ryan Sprang estimates that 150 have taken part in the outdoor workouts.
In the middle of March, GPAC was forced to stop workouts, due to the pandemic. The club held dry-land workouts via Zoom, but didn’t return to the pool until June 22. At that point, the club had a nomadic existence throughout South Jersey. In the summer, GPAC held its workouts at three different outdoor venues — Whitman Swim Club and Lake Kandle in Washington Township, and Peachwood.
Then in the fall, the team split workouts between Erlton Swim Club in Cherry Hill, and Peachwood. The agreement with Erlton ended Oct. 25, and GPAC moved all practices to Peachwood.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Sprang said.
Besides dealing with the cold, GPAC also had to ensure that swimming during a pandemic was a safe activity.
• A plan for frequent sanitization of facilities
• A plan for staffing, including health screeners at entries
• A designated COVID-19 liaison responsible for staying up-to-date on community and state recommendations
• A plan to maintain spacing for athletes and staff inside swim facilities, including while in the water
• A plan for providing PPE to coaches, staff members, and volunteers
• A plan for communicating potential positive COVID-19 cases of athletes and staff members
Because the Peachwood pool isn’t heated, the club purchased special heaters to warm the water to 79-82 degrees, and swimmers’ parents donated other heaters to warm the air when swimmers jump out of the pool — when a wind burst can feel like a punch to the gut.
Foe the most part, the swimmers just shrug off the discomfort.
“It’s definitely a little cold,” said Joe Rucci, a Rowan University freshman, “but it’s a lot worse for Ryan because he’s standing out there.”
As the coach, Ryan Sprang doesn’t enter the warm water, so drilling the team at 5:15 a.m. can be a chilly endeavor.
“Some mornings it could be 30 [degrees],” he said. “I’ve learned to layer up.”
“It was definitely an obstacle to go through,” she said. But “looking back, it’s like, ‘Wow, that was some accomplishment.’”
Ryan Sprang has been impressed by the dedication of the club’s young swimmers.
“They are pretty darn resilient and unique, and hopefully they learned a lot about themselves — I think we all have,” he said. At the start of the pandemic, “If somebody had told me we would be swimming outside [in December], I never would have believed that.”
Many of the swimmers had personal best times in two meets this past fall, he said — one in York, Pa., and another at the Wahoos Swim Club in Mount Laurel. Both meets were held indoors, before New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order paused indoor sports on Dec. 4, due to the pandemic. A week later, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf did the same. On Dec. 30, Murphy announced that indoor sports could resume on Jan 2.
Through it all, said Matthew Sprang, GPAC’s swimmers have proven they can make the best of a difficult situation.