The days leading up to Feb. 22, 2020 were among the best in the history of women’s swimming and diving at Princeton. The Tigers dominated the pool at the 2020 Ivy League Championships to clinch an epic 107-point victory over Harvard, bringing the Frank Keefe Trophy home to New Jersey for the 23rd time. Over four days of competition the team shattered six school records, three pool records, and a conference record in front of a roaring crowd.
Three weeks later, the University ordered its students home as COVID-19 lockdowns forced nearly all swimming facilities to shutter, abruptly truncating the team’s success.
“That was a very emotional time,” recalled Anna Durak ’22. “You’re coming off of this really high high, and then being sent home with a lot of pools shut down was mentally hard.”
Over a year later, the team is regaining its confidence and positioning itself for a competitive fall as training and team-building resume.
With campus closed in the fall of 2020, the women’s team scattered into training pods across the country. Some swimmers remained in their hometowns with their pre-collegiate club teams; others gathered to train with teams in Virginia Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and San Diego.
Durak, who is still swimming with the Virginia Beach pod at Tide Swimming, explained her decision as one of athletic necessity. The lockdowns marked the longest pause she had taken from swimming since she was five years old.
“The pools have definitely been hit hard by COVID regulations,” she said. “Some people weren’t allowed to swim for eight months, which is why I came here! My pool was getting shut down and reopened, shut down and reopened, shut down and reopened.”
Even while scattered, the team found ways to stay connected virtually throughout the fall. The swimmers began “lapchats,” random pairings that serve as short conversation-starters during the week, regular team FaceTimes and Kahoots, and team “families,” small support subgroups to encourage social bonding and team unity.
“We would try to do group workouts and have team goals to give us a purpose and unite us as athletes,” explained Jen Secrest ’23, a sophomore team captain who also trained with the Virginia Beach pod in the fall but returned to campus in January.
When students were invited to return to campus this spring, seven swimmers and three divers capitalized on the opportunity to train together again. The on-campus training squad completes daily two-hour practices complemented by drylands, and can train all together due to the small size of the squad and the extra capacity in DeNunzio Pool. The team has taken advantage of the modified season to experiment with new training regimens.
“We’ve gotten really big into something called ‘surf and turf,’” Secrest explained, describing it as “a mix between swim and dryland,” balancing in-water and out-of-water training more than in a typical season.
The long, competition-free season has also given the team an opportunity to focus on stroke fundamentals and body mechanics.
“The team is uniting around technique,” Secrest said. The lack of meets during what is normally a lengthy and intense racing season allowed the coaches to hone in on stroke work in ways that would have been more challenging before the pandemic, with swimmers having to prepare and taper more for racing.
Even while off campus, Durak feels the team is rekindling its fighting spirit after the disappointment of a canceled season. The women now have their sights set on the fall.
“We’ve started to create our competitive identity again,” she said. “We’re working on mindset — remembering to keep things in perspective, to make sure that all of our decisions are for the team and that we’re keeping ourselves and our teammates accountable.”
Coming out of this year, the swimmers aren’t taking anything for granted, and they are training to be in the best possible situation heading into next season. The team wants to use its success at Ivies in 2020 to cultivate another stellar season.
“We wanted to use that confidence and excitement to propel us forward,” Secrest said. “We didn’t want to become just satisfied with where we were.”
After their success last February, the team met and created individual and group goals for the next four years. Secrest credits that goal-making process with fending off team inactivity and demoralization: “Creating those big goals really helped motivate us throughout this time rather than just remaining stagnant.”
For Durak, the upcoming season — her last as a Princeton athlete — is particularly sentimental. She’s taken up the motto “be great and be grateful,” and looks to savor every moment while preparing for what she hopes will be an excellent season ahead.
For the seniors, this season is more bittersweet. Many opted to return to campus hoping to experience some vestige of this year’s competition season, but the cancellation of winter and spring athletics shattered that dream.
“It’s been hard for the seniors,” Durak said. Many of them trained throughout the fall for competition only to have their racing and personal goals thwarted by the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. “It’s very difficult to have a very strict cutoff and know that you’ll never compete again,” explained Secrest.
In the absence of a final competition season for seniors, the team has done its best to preserve the usual final-season accoutrements. They have spotlighted seniors on Instagram, delivered speeches, sent gifts of photo albums, embroidered blankets, and more.
“We were trying our best to appreciate them,” Durak explained.
For their part, the seniors have given back. The senior class “has been incredible at still staying involved and helping us out with school and social activities,” Secrest said. “It’s been super nice to still be connected to them.”
Looking back on the challenges of the past year, Durak believes they gave her renewed insight into the importance of swimming in her life.
“We all had our own crisis as a swimmer,” she said of closed pools, distanced friends, and canceled competition. “But ultimately it has helped us realize how important swimming is in our lives. We’ve all been doing it since we were really young and it is definitely a big part of who we are.”
For Secrest, those challenges gave her a new appreciation of her team and her teammates. “They’re the most motivated group of people I’ve ever met in my entire life,” she said. “I’m so so lucky to be surrounded by them on a daily basis.”
As next season approaches, Secrest believes that team spirit will give them strength. “I forgot how easy it was to work so hard when you’re surrounded by everyone,” she said with a smile.
“It’s gonna be a wild time, but it’ll be fun,” Durak added. “We love a good challenge.”