The world was brought to its knees in 2020 as the Coronavirus pandemic swept across the world. Swimming pool access was abruptly prohibited leaving lovers of the sport high and dry. From children’s classes to Olympic level training, swimming was almost impossible to teach or take part in.
Olympic Swimmer Michael Gunning has said the sport turned on its head during the 2020 lockdown in a way that no other sport has, and that more should be done for swimming as restrictions ease.
Lockdown impacted everyone and changed the way we engaged with sport and exercise. For some, the alternatives were immediately obvious. Running, walking and home workouts became commonplace and served as a worthy understudy to many people’s first choice sports. Some were even able to continue playing their sport largely uninterrupted. For Gunning, there are no substitutes for the pool.
Life as an Olympic swimmer revolves around rigid routine and physically demanding training, often requiring 10km sessions in the pool twice a day. “It’s pretty much impossible to replicate the effects that sort of training will have on your body if you don’t have access to a pool.” Gunning said.
Gunning, who is English born but will compete for Jamaica at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games said: “My first experience of lockdown was a massive shock to the system. We really rely on our feel for the water to make sure we’re hitting the times we need.”
As a professional swimmer it is rare to have more than 5 weeks away from the swimming pool. Little did Gunning know he would soon be faced with 4 consecutive months out of the water.
Gunning was forced to alter his exercise regime dramatically as a result. “All my traditional training went out the window, I’ve had to spend a lot of time on the bike and on the rowing machine trying to train those muscle groups and maintain my cardio levels.” Gunning said.
This experience was not limited to the highest performing athletes however, it trickled all the way down, leaving no level unaffected.
Tarik Crooks, a lifelong swimmer who competed for the University of Manchester for 3 years was also significantly affected by the lack of pool facilities during lockdown. He has since decided to take up lacrosse and put his days in the water on hold. “Months and months away from swimming was enough to kill the buzz for me.” Tarik said.
Luckily Tarik’s sister was able to reignite his sporting passion over the summer by teaching him lacrosse in their garden. A sport which he now plays on a regular basis at an amateur level since lockdown ended.
Like many others, he found swimming a particularly hard skillset to preserve with no access to a pool. “It’s such a demanding sport that any amount of time away and you’re sure to feel it in your performances.” Tarik said.
For Two-time junior British Swimming Champion Ellie Baldwin, the change in her style of exercise was enough to cause serious injury which required her to have two elbow surgeries and subsequently ended her professional career.
“We had four months out of the pool and a completely different training plan on land. When I came back my elbow just couldn’t handle the intensity.” Baldwin said.
Despite the abrupt end to Baldwin’s competitive career, she sympathises with those who were unable to start their journey during the pandemic and agrees that more funding and programmes should be available for new swimmers.
Earlier this year Swim England released statistics stating that five million swimming lessons were lost during the pandemic meaning 240,000 children had missed out on learning how to swim 25m.
Baldwin also highlighted the number of swimming clubs who are now financially struggling. Clubs are largely funded by membership, and grants from Swim England are rare. Baldwin said: “Swimming is a year-round sport, especially in the UK with the amount of time spent in lockdown you’re going to see a real drop off in the number of swimmers. There are loads of clubs who simply can’t pay for pool time, coaches or lifeguards anymore.”
There is certainly a view from within the world of swimming that the sport has suffered more severely than others throughout the pandemic. If Team GB wishes to produce more successful swimmers like Adam Peaty in the future, more funding and access appears vitally necessary.