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High school swim teams still facing uncertainty as season looms

Next Monday officially begins the 2020-21 Mississippi high school athletic calendar as preseason practices are allowed to be held for all fall sports, excluding football.

This is good news for volleyball and cross-country teams across the state who have been anxious to return to competition after the COVID-19 pandemic halted all MHSAA activities and sports in March.

For swimming, it brings concern and uncertainty of how teams can have a season with limited access to pools or in some areas of the state, no access at all as meets are allowed to begin taking place Aug. 24.

Oxford High School swim coach Robert Gonzalez has been working since March to find places for his swimmers to practice during the shutdown. That search has led to the use of private pools due to Oxford’s city pool being closed all summer because of COVID-19 and nearly all of the Oxford Park Commission staff furloughed until July 27. The pool will remain closed through August.

One option is the pool located at the Turner Center on the University of Mississippi’s campus, which Lafayette is using next week for their tryouts. The pool reopens on Aug. 10, but will have COVID-19 restrictions that will limit what Gonzalez and his team could do at a given time. Only three swimmers per lane will be allowed at one time, making for a total of 24 swimmers at the pool area for a roster that sees between 30 to 40 swimmers on the Oxford roster between the boys and girls teams.

“It’s definitely unlike any season I’ve been a part whether it’s been as a coach or a swimmer myself,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the most up-in-the-air thing I’ve every seen in my entire life. …The last couple of months has been (spent) trying to secure private pools to be able to have some lane access, to be able to keep swimmers in the best condition possible.”

Gonzalez said his swimmers were out of the water for two months once COVID-19 hit Mississippi in March. He was able to find pool access the last weekend of May and work in a modified setting since then.

With the school season begins on Aug. 10, Gonzalez is now transitioning from facilities as well as changing practice times and other things to accommodate his swimmers and current COVID-19 restrictions.

The bigger issue is trying to find venues that will allow MHSAA-sanctioned meets to take place starting at the end of the month.

“Right now its just more of a logistical headache of trying to coordinate with the University and the school district and with private pools to make it all work,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been a stressful time for that. …Our situation is still a whole lot better, even with all of our challenges here, than a lot of the other Universities in our state and across the country there are still states that haven’t allowed teams to come back into pool facilities. While it’s problematic here, it’s still better than a large majority of the entire country.”

There was a dual meet set to be held in Tunica next month which is still being worked on between Oxford, Hernando and Lewisburg. The biggest issue is the Tunica Aquatic Center has not been reopened. With high schools not owning their own pools or aquatic centers, teams are at the mercy of agreements with third party facilities as well as whatever the current COVID-19 restrictions are in those center’s respective towns and cities.

Gonzalez said the Tupelo Aquatic Center, the state’s largest swimming facility, also has “heavy restrictions” which prohibits them from hosting a meet at this time.

With the current inability to host a swim meet properly as the season is weeks from beginning, Gonzalez said he has tried to speak with the MHSAA about postponing the swim season to the spring. Those talks have not proved much progress in regards to moving the season, as the MHSAA told Gonzalez last week the fall season is moving forward as planned.

“I’ve spoken to a large coalition of coaches who are onboard with moving to the spring simply because how bad our situation is,” Gonzalez said. “Right now, (MHSAA has) made the decision to go full speed ahead. So, we’re preparing to go full speed ahead. What that looks like is changing hour-to-hour. We’ll make it work one way or the other but right now it’s very, very difficult.”

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