MILLTOWN, NJ - The coronavirus pandemic changed the landscape of youth sports, but coaches are adapting in order to get young athletes back out there participating in the sports they enjoy. Brookside Swim Team head coach Courtney Thompson and her staff are pleased to have their swimmers back in the water and competing even if the competitions aren't quite the same as in years past.
"I think all of us were just so excited to get back in the pool and get back to coaching, things we all love,"Thompson said. "All the swimmers hadn't swum at all since March, some longer than that. I was dedicated to do whatever I could to allow the kids to get back into the pool for a summer season safely even though it looks much different. All four coaches and my amazing parent representative Amy Ryan are doing whatever we can to have a memorable summer for us and the kids."
Thompson grew up swimming for Brookside's Swim Team. She's been in the water swimming competitively since she was four-years-old. The Milltown native also swam for the Raritan Valley YMCA Riptide Swim Team. The team is based in East Brunswick and was started by Thompson's father Scott in 1995. Thompson was a member of The College of New Jersey's swim team for all four years, serving as captain her senior year. Before taking over the head coaching duties for Brookside two summers ago, Thompson served as an assistant for two years. Joining her on the coaching staff are Michael D'Esposito, Erin Drebych and Jonathan Benowitz.
"Even though there is a large age gap between us, we all swam on Brookside and the Riptide together at some point," Thompson explained. "Giving us a great bond, friendship and knowledge of our team."
Thompson just completed her graduate work at TCNJ in Education, earning her Special Education certification. Drebych recently graduated from Spotswood High School and will be starting Virginia Tech in the fall. D'Esposito is a student at Fordham University and Benowitz will be starting his freshman year at Drew University after graduating from East Brunswick High School this summer.
Under their watchful, experienced eyes are 71 swimmers from Milltown, East Brunswick, South River, Spotswood, Sayreville, Edison, Highland Park and North Brunswick. Tryouts are not necessary to be a part of the Brookside Swim Team. Swimmers typically register in late spring with practices starting in early June. However, this year the team was not able to return to the pool until June 23 when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy allowed pools to reopen and non-contact sports to resume.
Thompson and her coaching staff got the kids back in the water right away while incorporating Murphy's return-to-sports and the Brookside Pool Club membership guidelines along with their own practice and safety protocols. Swimmers and coaches have temperature checks each morning before practice and complete a questionnaire. Masks are worn upon entering the club as well as while wellness checks are being done and whenever social distancing is not practical. The coaches split the large group of swimmers into five different practice group and hold two sessions in order to keep the number of swimmers in the water at the same time to a minimum. Both ends of the pool are also utilized during practice with two coaches running drills in each section.
"We are lucky to have the space that we do to allow us to conduct our practices safely and efficiently,"Thompson said. "Most parents do not stay, as we have recommended, and swimmers must leave after their practice to avoid congregating."
"I think that everyone is adjusting to our new standards and expectations very well," Thompson continued. " At the beginning, practices were a little crazy and hectic trying to figure out lanes and splitting kids up into groups. However, now the coaches and swimmers are all in a routine and know what is expected of them at practice and where their lane spot is, so it has become second nature to all of us."
While practice makes perfect as the saying goes, it's the meets and the actual competition against other swim teams that the kids really love. With a little ingenuity, the Brookside Swim Teams and other teams across the country are still able to get those competitive juices flowing. Instead of traditional trips to other pools or hosting swim meets, the Brookside Swim Team is participating in a series of virtual swim meets this summer.
"The difference between our normal meets and virtual meets is that each team is swimming at their own home pools," Thompson explained. "We conduct our own sessions of the same meet on the same day during the same timeframe and then consolidate the results electronically. We are using a web-based swim meet scoring application called SwimTopia Meet Maestro, which allows each team to record their results at their home pool, calculate results and score the meet. When all the results for each race are posted by each team, the system takes it from there and calculates the points to tell us who wins."
Brookside has already competed in one meet against the Ahi Swim Team from California, the Charlotte Dolphins from North Caroline and the Oakwood Stingrays from Alabama this past weekend, winning its first virtual competition. Three swimmers broke four of the team's records in the July 11 virtual meet.
"This meet really set the tone for our season and myself and my assistant coaches are extremely excited to see where the rest of our season will take us," Thompson said of Saturday's victory.
The remainder of the season will include virtual meets with Garden State teams in their division including the Somerset Hills Swim Club, the Frog Hollow Swim Club, the Cedar Hill Club and the East Brunswick Sandpipers. At the end of July, Brookside will be the virtual host for a championship swim meet featuring area swim teams.
"Virtual meets are not the most ideal way to conduct a swim meet since competition helps to push you in a race, and we can only have parents and siblings of the swimmers in the facility while the meet is going on," Thompson said. "However, it is the most ideal for our current situation. We are lucky at Brookside to have swimmers who know each other well and are friends. They also push each other and encourage each other to swim faster to become better. Even though we cannon have in-person meets, I am just happy and lucky that we were able to organize six virtual meets that we will have over the next few weeks for the kids. It gives them something to look forward to and be excited about once again."
In addition to their virtual meets, the Brookside Swim Team is saying goodby to eight high school seniors this season, including two assistant coaches, who will be graduating from the program and moving on this summer on July 22. The seniors will be recognized for their accomplishments and contributions next week on Senior Day.
"Myself and my assistant coaches are so proud of them and what they have accomplished in and out of the pool and are so excited to see all the things they will accomplish over the next four years," Thompson said.
Swim enthusiasts can follow the progress of the Brookside Swim Team this summer on Instagram.