GREAT FALLS — High school swimmers across Montana are back in the pool as the first week of winter sports practices wrap up.
And despite what promises to be a strange season, the Great Falls High and Great Falls CMR teams have a combined 83 swimmers out this year. Head coach Ed McNamee is thrilled about the turnout, but it’s made having COVID-safe practices logistically difficult. Only 25 people, including coaches, are allowed in the Great Falls High pool facility at a time.
That means the programs are working through four separate practices a day, sometimes starting at 5:45 a.m. McNamee said his swimmers know they have to be efficient at practice.
"They understand the economy of time and the economy of work that we talk about," McNamee said.
He also said the situation will lend itself to some unique coach-swimmer interactions.
"There's a lot more one-on-one time. It's going to allow me to get to know the first-year and JV swimmers earlier than we usually do," McNamee said, adding that he can't be at every practice, leaving assistant coaches to run the show and work with swimmers they normally wouldn't. "It's going to really bring us together in a strange way. But I think we'll be better as a program after this."
The empty practice feeling is going to be the setting for much of the year. At least during the early part of the season, swim meets will be virtual. There will be an open time to swim throughout each week and swimmers will compete at their home pool. All the times will be compiled at the end of each week by Montana High School Association swimming rules interpreter Merle Gunderson and released on Sundays.
"They're going to have to know how to show out and compete with no crowd, with minimal people in there and be able to execute and do things, swimming against themselves," McNamee said.
The MHSA hasn’t yet worked out how the 2020-21 state swim meet will look, but it is scheduled for the weekend of March 6.
Since Great Falls High's and CMR’s girls and boys teams each boast some high-level talent, McNamee said there’s no reason all four Great Falls teams can't be in contention for high finishes at state. It will just take time to get used to the unusual season.
"There's a lot to get excited about, I know that's for sure," he said. "And I think hopefully now that we're in our second week of practice, we can start paying more attention to that, then we are making sure how many numbers we have as we get used to what we're doing."
The first meet will start Jan. 4.