As the COVID-19 outbreak shifted from instances of an unknown controlled disease to a global pandemic, the sports world underwent a series of changes in rapid succession. Amid these changes, the members of the Cal men’s swim team faced the same harsh reality faced by thousands of other student-athletes across the nation: In the blink of an eye, their season had ended.
The Bears had just showcased an excellent swim at the Pac-12 championships and defended their title as champions for the third year in a row. According to head coach David Durden, the team was in a great spot to transition from conference to the NCAA championships.
“Part of us were disappointed in that,” Durden said about the abrupt end to the season. “The other part of it was the very real response that … this is just a swim meet in the big scheme of things, and whatever it is we need to do, we’re going to do it, to do our part, to do our fair share.”
As senior athletes everywhere lament the lack of closure to their careers, they are forced to weigh their disappointment alongside doing what’s best for public health and safety.
“For our seniors that are going into NCAAs and looking at that meet as the last meet of their career, the second that they touch the wall in their last race, that’s it,” Durden said. “That moment that they do touch the wall and have that minute or 90-second walk from the block over to our team area and have that short period of time to process the idea that that was their last swim — that got taken away from them a little bit.”
While many of the seniors on Durden’s roster won’t be able to get that particular experience to close out their competitive swimming careers, he noted that as Cal students, they understand that it is their moral and social responsibility to follow public health initiatives.
“They absolutely 100% get it. It still doesn’t take away the feelings and the emotions of being bummed,” Durden said. “But at the same time, they realize that there’s more to it than a last swim meet.”
Although the team didn’t get a chance to celebrate the nine graduating seniors before leaving, the members plan on celebrating the end of their careers as soon as they’re allowed to meet face to face.
Besides commemorating the graduating seniors and maintaining its members’ health and safety, the team’s main focus is continuing to train even without access to its facilities.
Durden is less concerned about his athletes getting access to a pool than he is about how they can improve without one. With the 2020 Olympics being pushed back a year, the team has had to reset its standard cyclical schedule. While athletes typically take a longer break post-Olympics, the blue and gold have shifted their break to coincide with the timing of shelter-in-place orders so that they can dive back into training as soon as they’re allowed to.
As one would expect from other high-level sports, a break for the Bears does not mean sitting around and doing nothing. The team is currently undergoing a seven-week phase during which they are improving in one particular skill: underwater kicking.
It seems odd to perform underwater kicking without water, but as Durden explains, the team has had several Zoom calls with a biomechanist from USA Swimming — where Durden also coaches Team USA. During the calls, the swimmers learned to perform underwater kicking within the walls of their own homes, shared videos and examined the metrics of engaging in this practice.
The team also had a Zoom call with a performance psychologist on the idea of imagery and how the members could utilize it in conjunction with video under their current circumstances.
“We have enough underwater video of our guys throughout the course of the season that that’s the perfect opportunity to look at that and start to use their imagination, start to use imagery to help them get better without physically being in the water,” Durden said. “As we shift to another phase of our season, we’ll start working on a different aspect of the sport.”
Aside from improving the team members’ techniques, Durden also emphasizes the importance of establishing a healthy routine and regimen to elevate their performance as athletes. For him, what his team does out of the water is just as, if not more, important than what they do in it.
Another challenge Durden faces during this unusual time for athletes who are training for the Olympics is the switch between short-course and long-course racing.
On the collegiate level, swimmers compete in short-course, with pool lengths of 25 yards, but an Olympic-size pool is set at 50 meters per lap — a drastic difference in a sport that is determined by milliseconds. A difficult dilemma swimmers face while training is balancing strong short-course championship swims with their Olympic goals, which require swims more than double that lap length.
As the reigning NCAA champions, Cal has its sights set on more than just another national championship — with several members of his team looking to score a spot on the coveted U.S. Olympic team, Durden has had to rethink the Bears’ schedule.
“I don’t think it’s wise for our undergrads to move through the entire collegiate year and then wait until April of 2021 before we get some long-course racing in,” Durden said. “It’s forced me to think about some different opportunities that we need to incorporate come September of 2020 into our guys’ schedule from a long-course perspective to help them be ready to go by the time we get to June of 2021.”
As the coronavirus continues to ravage life as we know it, the Bears, consistent with their motto of being world-class, train while modifying their regimens according to what they have available.
While seniors may not have had the typical send-off experience, at the end of the day, the NCAAs are just another swim meet. Their experience alongside some of the best swimmers in the nation, however, is something that they can carry with them far beyond a moment on the podium.
Amber Fang covers men’s swim & dive. Contact her at