Charleston swim coach Kirsten Pentzien offers advice to a swimmer during practice at the Mattoon YMCA gym.

By Race Archibald

Central Illinois has a dearth of pools where high school swimmers can train.

There were even fewer this past summer. Most were closed because of health concerns related to Covid-19.

So few girls were able to prepare while waiting for the IHSA to make a decision on whether a season would take place.

Coaches Dwight and Kirsten Pentzien were also wondering where they would be able to practice since they weren’t allowed to train at Eastern Illinois’ pool.

Ultimately, they were able to find a home to prepare for a modified season.

The season will go on as planned, with a few changes. The Charleston girls’ high school swim team has practiced since Aug. 10 at the Mattoon YMCA indoor pool instead of at Charleston’s Rotary Aquatic Center.

“It’s great the Mattoon Y was able to let us use their facility,” said Dwight, entering his ninth season coaching with his wife. “It allowed us to keep practicing and get ready for the season.”

Charleston has 12 swimmers this year, which is on the higher side of athletes compared to past years. In an effort to spread the swimmers in a six-lane pool during practice, they are able to have one swimmer at each end of the pool.

“One of the hardest things to do is yelling instructions across the pool,” Kirsten said. “It’s very hard to hear in this pool, but we make it work.”

There will be no sectional or state swim meet this fall, but that won’t stop Charleston from competing. Their first meet is against Champaign-Central on September 12. Dwight says not many schools are willing to host a multiple-team invite.

Right now, Charleston has five scheduled dual meets with the potential to add a few more.

Charleston finished ninth in the Urbana Sectional last year out of 13 with no swimmers advancing to the state meet.

A new change in the IHSA for this season includes eliminating relays, in order to minimize the amount of people together on deck. If relays were held, it would’ve put swimming in the “medium” risk category, according to the IHSA COVID-19 guidelines, and would’ve delayed the start of the season.

This means swimmers are allowed to enter a maximum of four individual events, instead of just two.

“We were sometimes able to run meets in 45 minutes (with relays),” Dwight said. “So while they can swim four events, they may not look the best.”

The 500 freestyle is the longest event in high school competition, but Dwight says they mostly have all the swimmers doing the same practice, with swimmers occasionally breaking off to work on other strokes.

He also says most of the team came into the season with little to no training because of pool access. Even the Mattoon YMCA closed for several months.

However, they will be able to practice and compete in some capacity as planned, while most other sports have been postponed.

“We’re fortunate to have our season go on,” Dwight said. “We’re able to make it work and that’s all you can hope for.”