Navigating how to make sports function amid a pandemic isn’t easy, and if you’re attempting to follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) protocols, it can be downright impossible, as with wrestling, for example.
Fortunately some sports are adaptable. Like swimming.
After months of uncertainty — not knowing if or when pools would open again in 2020 — the folks at Old Orchard Swim Club rallied with five other Cherry Hill swim teams to salvage the summer season. The result was the 2020 Cherry Hill Virtual Champs Quarantine Bowl, an event held in lieu of the annual Cherry Bowl that drew nearly 400 swimmers on Aug. 1.
“We had over 100 kids on the team this year,” said Old Orchard coach Chris Brookover. “When you see a group of people and everyone has a smile on their face at the end of the meet, it was incredible.”
In order to run the event safely, each individual swim club hosted its own intersquad meet on the same day, with individual race times compiled and tallied using an online spreadsheet. They also took temperatures daily, went through a health questionnaire regularly and kept strict mask-wearing guidelines for everyone in the clubs.
“We had unbelievable cooperation,” Brookover said.
Given what expectations were just a few months ago, the culmination of the event was a worthwhile endeavor for everyone involved, including the dozens of seniors from the clubs who had lost out on so much this spring and summer.
Among those recent high school graduates were Brookover’s son, Jackson, and fellow Cherry Hill East 2020 alums Kurt Comber, Rob Thompson and Spenser DuBois. The quartet has been teammates at Old Orchard for most of their lives and through high school, too.
Two Saturdays ago, after spending most of the spring and summer away from the pool and uncertain if they’d ever compete together again, Brookover, Comber, Thompson and DuBois won both the 200 Free Relay and the 200 Medley Relay among the 15- to 18-year-old bracket to help Old Orchard capture the Quarantine Bowl team championship.
“It meant a lot,” Thompson said of the opportunity to compete. “We’ve all been so close since we were younger, not even us, but all of our parents, too. So it started to get emotional after the final relay. Just finishing that, we wanted to go as fast as we could for one last hurrah.”
In addition to the chance to swim virtually against their friendly foes from Fox Hollow, Covered Bridge, Willowdale, Woodcrest and Wexford, the meet allowed team members to gather and celebrate their careers.
“We were really fortunate to have Old Orchard come together and make something great out of it,” said Jackson Brookover, South Jersey Sports Weekly’s 2020 Boys Swimmer of the Year.
“We were ecstatic to be able to finish it off,” he continued. “Graduating together at Old Orchard, this was with all of the people we’ve known, all the families that saw us grow up together. It was great for them to see us go and for us to give our goodbyes, too.”
The 4½ months leading up to the Quarantine Bowl were unlike anything the Cherry Hill East/Old Orchard seniors could have expected, missing out on a regular graduation, prom, and senior trip, among other activities. Despite everything that was lost, the swimmers were able to come out of the experience with a fresh perspective.
“Honestly, we’ve had all of this stuff taken away, and everything that’s happened has sucked, but I think it’s more about adapting,” said Jackson Brookover, who went from swimming six days a week to being out of the pool for nearly three months during the pandemic.
“The word I’d use is resilience,” he added. “We’ve all had to go through it together and we’ve all pushed forward, tried new things and did things differently. Everyone has been resilient with everything that’s gone on.”
Brookover (Penn State), Comber (Virginia Military Institute) and DuBois (Montclair State) will all continue their swimming careers in college while Thompson is playing varsity water polo (Penn State-Erie). During the months outside of the pool, all adapted in their own ways, whether it was developing a running program to stay fit, building a gym at home, keeping up with a vigorous calisthenics program or blitzing through classic movies and current TV shows on Netflix.
“It was different, tough,” Thompson said of the time outside of the pool and away from his friends and teammates. “The last day of school (March 13), we had a swim team pizza party at lunch. So I didn’t have the worst last day of school, even though I didn’t know at the time it was the last day.”
When they were able to reunite, the Old Orchard seniors made the most of it in the Quarantine Bowl, and they felt better equipped to handle whatever else life throws at them as adults.
“I think everyone that’s gone through this has learned something, whether it’s how to handle situations, how to prepare, just with any situation in life that hits you hard,” Thompson said. “You learn new ways to deal with things. Everyone is coming out of this stronger and better prepared for the future.”
Other top performers at the Quarantine Bowl included Old Orchard’s Annie Behm, Ava Moyer, Renee Bak, Hayden Malko and Roselyn Belle Cero, Covered Bridge’s Isabella Roma and Woodcrest’s Angelina Walsh. On the boys’ side were Willowdale’s Ryan Cortes, Fox Hollow’s Bobby Irwin, Old Orchard’s James Tao and J.D. Moyer, Covered Bridge’s Ryan Stankus, Wexford’s Matthew Weinstein and Woodcrest’s Peter Moon.