The majority of the winter swimming & diving season is being conducted in a pandemic-prompted virtual setting. So swimmers have had to adapt to competing against their own teammates without another team in the pool.
Dover-Sherborn junior Ava Yablonski, however, is familiar with internal competition; she and D-S senior Will Quinn have been pushing each other in practice for the last few years.
“Since Day One of joining the team, I’ve been trying to keep up with her in backstroke and usually failing,” said Quinn, a team captain who has committed to Skidmore.
“It’s definitely helpful to have someone at the same competition level or above who I can kind of base my technique and tempo and stuff like that off of.”
Recently, first-year head coach Carly Eckles has tried to create friendly competition among her team, splitting up Yablonski from some of her competitors within her lane — Quinn included —to create intrasquad races in practice.
That creates a meet-like atmosphere, which helps swimmers adjust to the virtual meet format they face this season. Yablonski, like many others, has had to be flexible out of the pool too.
Without the benefit of a campus visit, Yablonski committed Sunday to swim at the University of Minnesota. She talked with the coaching staff and her future teammates extensively over Zoom.
“Even when I first talked to some of the coaches, they made me feel so welcome on the team,” Yablonski said. “Even if I couldn’t visit the college, it still really felt like home and they really welcomed me onto the team.”
Her campus tour included one of the Golden Gopher swimmers carrying a digital version of Yablonski through the campus, into the pool, and through the dorms all while on a Zoom call. Hopefully, she said, Yablonski will get the chance to visit Minnesota in person in April.
“To be able to coach someone who’s going to go on to compete in the Big Ten, selfishly, that’s really cool,” said Eckles, who replaced Sue Eaton as D-S head coach. “I’m just happy that she was able to find a school that she feels like it’s a good fit for her … especially because she’s never met anybody in person and she’s never gotten to the school.”
A returning Globe Swimmer of the Year, Yablonski was the Tri-Valley MVP and a double-winner at the Division 2 state meet last February, finishing first in the 50-yard freestyle (23.54) and 100 backstroke (54.44). Her standout abilities in the pool are compounded by her leadership on the deck, according to both Quinn and Eckles.
“She’s one of those athletes that will put the team first,” Eckles said. “You know when you have somebody with that much talent, it’s pretty easy for that ego to get in the way, but Ava always wants to do whatever’s best for her team.”
Yablonski, said Quinn, is a quiet leader and a friend to lean on. While he is an outspoken captain, seniors tend to be unintentionally intimidating, and Yablonski provides a bridge between underclassmen and upperclassmen.
“It’s really helpful to have other leaders rather than just the captains because it takes even more this year to get people hyped up for racing,” Quinn said.
Without another team in the pool or the ability to yell and cheer, Yablonski and her teammates have had to find motivation elsewhere. Meets, noted Eckles, are “anticlimactic.” Leaving the pool not knowing who won detracts from the feeling of success, so Yablonski has focused on something other than just winning.
“I think right now, with everything going on with COVID, I feel like just having a great time with friends in the pool and being able to push each other is pretty much my biggest goal,” Yablonski said.
▪ With COVID-19 restrictions limiting practice time, many swimmers have had to make the tough decision to choose between high school and club swimming. Cohasset senior Leigh Spicer, a 2019-20 Globe All-Scholastic, opted to stick with Kingfish Swimming.
“I had made that tough decision, and there’s nothing I would want more than to be in the high school season right now because I had so much fun,” Spicer said. “And a part of me really wishes that I got to have that experience for longer.”
Next year, she will be reunited with one of her former Kingfish teammates on the swim team at the University of Richmond. Alexa Connors swims for the Spiders after a storied high school career at Silver Lake. A two-time high school All-American in the 500 free, Connors was a Globe 2019-20 Swimmer of the Year. Spicer committed to Richmond in the early fall after initially committing to William and Mary.
Last winter, in her only high school season, Spicer placed second in the 500 free (5:00.51) at Division 2 states and finished with two top-3 performances at South sectionals.
“She did a wonderful job for us last year and we had a killer year last year because of her,” Cohasset coach Bill Burnett said. “She’s a bit soft spoken in a way, but when she gets on that starting block, it’s like a whole different Leigh Spicer.”
▪ The South Shore League began its swimming season in early January with virtual meets scheduled every Friday, with Cohasset, Middleborough, Norwell, and Randolph competing. The lone exception is Rockland, which will not field a team because of low participation numbers.
The league plans to host a championship virtual meet at the end of the season with the Middleborough Pool serving as the host site. Each team will receive 75 to 90 minutes to run through every event and the times will be compared at the end of the meet to determine the results. The boys meet is scheduled for Feb. 11 and the girls meet on Feb. 12.
▪ Swampscott’s Elizabeth Dokina, another returning Globe All-Scholastic, and Matthew Brown recently committed to swim collegiately at Bucknell University and Trinity College, respectively.
Dokina is a two-time Division 2 breaststroke champion, registering a 1:04.11 last season and 1:04.56 in her sophomore year. Brown, a Northeastern Conference All-Star, placed fifth in both the 200 Individual medley (1:59.64) and the 500 free (4:46.71) at Division 2 states.
Correspondent Andrew Lin contributed to this report.