Swim club gets creative with new guards to help protect athletes during pandemic

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As it begins getting swimmers back into the pool, an Anchorage swim club is getting creative with its guards against coronavirus, designing and developing its own lane barriers to physically separate athletes.

"Knowing I was unlocking the pool for other people, I had butterflies in my stomach," said Cliff Murray, who serves as head coach for the Northern Lights Swim Club. "I could hardly sleep the night before. I was very nervous, excited.

"And I wanted everything to go right," he said. "I wanted everybody to come in and feel like we were doing the right thing."

The Northern Lights Swim Club, which operates in several locations including the Service High School pool, is trying to adjust not only to follow state and national health guidance, but also to make it so that more of its athletes feel comfortable returning to training.

"We surveyed our membership, and about 95 percent of them were ready to get back in the pool," said Jodi Mclaughlin, who swims for and serves on the board for the Northern Lights Swim Club, "but we also didn’t want discard or undervalue those who were afraid - and there are real health concerns."

So, after two months away from the water, and with concerns over the coronavirus pandemic hovering, every lap now starts and ends with plexiglass dividers separating each lane.

"We really believe this is one of the safest places to be active – in the pool," Mclaughlin said, "and we really want to get back to normal as much as we can. So hopefully we’ll be able to continue."

The loose idea for the barriers came from Murray, who then consulted doctors, engineers, and other contacts from the team to come up with a final design.

Along with the dividers, the team is also still running on severely reduced numbers of people training in the pool at one time: While local mandates allow for 25 to 50 percent capacity, people from only one household are allowed in a lane at a time. This means that, most of the time, only six people are training at once. Occasionally, a couple of members from the same family will be in the same lanes.

"A physical barrier to help maybe prevent the spread of the virus," Murray said. "And really, that's all it's there for is to help - maybe knock down a little bit of the virus but also make people feel comfortable."

For some, the barriers are hardly noticeable, but others have found that it can take a bit of time to get used to them.

"The dividers, I don't really notice them," said Todd Jackson, a triathlete and swimmer with the club. "You just can't talk to your neighbor, so that's a little different. The biggest difference is we're used to having 5-6 people in a lane during a practice."

It's bit odd. I kind of - I'm a little nervous when I'm going into the wall, because I'm worried I'm going to hit them, but our team did a good job of putting them together, so I know we're safe.

Either way, the idea is already making waves, both in and out of the water, with many people from the Lower 48 already calling about how to create barriers of their own.

"I'm looking forward to hearing about every team in the state being back in the water - Juneau, Fairbanks, everywhere," Murray said. "I want everybody back in. The more of us that are swimming, the better."

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