As she aims for a spot on Canada’s Paralympic Games swim team, B.C.’s female para-swimmer of the year is among those making the best of less-than-ideal training conditions at the lone public pool currently open in Surrey.
Cloverdale’s Arianna Hunsicker and her Surrey Knights swim club teammates have no access to change rooms at Surrey Sport & Leisure Complex, so they arrive in their swimsuits and exit relatively wet for a cold sprint to the parking lot, usually in the before-school hours.
“We walk out in a towel and swim parka and just run to the car and blast the heat, it’s so funny,” Hunsicker, 17, said with a laugh. “It’s a long walk from the parking lot, too, and if it’s raining it’s just horrible.”
The Fleetwood-area pool is the only city-operated one open in Surrey at the moment, although Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre is planned to reopen with a phased approach starting in early December.
The Knights are one of two full-time swim clubs using Surrey Sport & Leisure, along with one artistic swimming club, two water polo clubs, a dive team, masters and other swim programs.
The pool reopened in mid-October, following a six-month closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Swim clubs and other users were given a limited number of lane hours, along with a long list of rules to follow.
“At 5:30 in the morning we’re standing at the back door in the rain,” explained Knights’ head coach Reg Shaw. “We have our own entrance separate from the public, and the pool is divided into zones. Our swimmers are assigned a lane five metres apart. They’re spaced apart in the water and not allowed to pass each other in the pool.”
In operation since 1973, the Knights’ club membership has dipped from nearly 300 pre-COVID to around the 150 mark currently, Shaw said.
“Our membership numbers change quite a bit,” he noted, “but we’re down probably 50 per cent of membership. We don’t have the space, and the lane hours – we get 160 a week, and 120 of those are before 8 a.m. A large portion (of club members) aren’t interested because of COVID, too – they’ll just wait. But some might just go on to other activities.”
The swim club is thankful to be in the water, Shaw underlined.
“We’re making the best of the situation,” Shaw added, “but it’s a guessing game with the schedule and how the city programmed everything. They’re making decisions without asking stakeholders, or they are asking those stakeholders but it’s after the fact. I made great headway with city with protocols that were just outrageous, so I invited them down and showed them what could work better, and some changes were made. And I’m sure they’re handcuffed due to other protocols, with Fraser Health. Everybody is trying their best, I know that.”
With no competitions on the calendar at the moment, the swimmers are just training in the pool, with some in-house racing.
“Most of training is from September to March, when provincials start,” Hunsicker explained. “And then most of the national and international meets are in the summer, the major ones. There were quite a few I was supposed to go to this year, but they didn’t happen.”
If and when the Paralympic Games are held in Japan next summer, Hunsicker has a good shot of being on the Canadian team, with trials scheduled for April.
“When this whole COVID thing happened, we were two weeks from going to the Olympic and Paralympic trials, our team, so it all got shut down,” she said. “I had a shot at making the team, and still do. We were all in top shape, our fitness, and ready to race our best.”
On Nov. 4, Hunsicker was named Swim BC’s Female Provincial Para-Swimmer of the Year.
“She is an accomplished swimmer and has been an excellent representation of BC Swimming Excellence,” says a post on swimbc.ca. “Arianna scored 3379 Canadian Para Points from the events she swam at BC Provincial Championships. Swim BC would like to acknowledge Arianna’s hard work.”
Hunsicker is a strong backstroker and freestyle swimmer in sprint events. A competitive swimmer since the age of 13, she’s among several nationally-ranked swimmers with the Knights.
“I started with Knights,” Hunsicker said, “and it’ll be sad because next year I’m most likely moving to Montreal to train with the high-performance centre, because most swimmers move on when they graduate (from high school). That’s where I hope to go to bring my swimming up even further.”
Back in the spring months, when all pools were closed, Hunsicker and a friend opted to swim at Sasamat Lake and also Crescent Beach.
“We were there a few times a week and it was freezing cold in March and April, but it was better in summer,” added Hunsicker, who has opted for online courses during her Grade 12 year at Tweedsmuir Secondary.
As for the pool at Surrey Sport & Leisure, the City of Surrey says the facility is programmed to keep distinct groups in their respective program areas in an attempt to enhance safety.
“We are asking that while we are in this phase of Via Sport – Return to Sport and our recreation recovery, the athletes come prepared to swim and exit shortly after practice,” Laurie Cavan, general manger of parks, recreation and culture, told the Now-Leader. “We have had support from the clubs in doing this. Like all our safety guidelines, we will continue to revisit them as we move through the coming months.”
Cavan said the planned reopening of Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre in early December is contingent on COVID-19 cases and any changes in the Provincial Health Orders. “Other aquatic facilities may be reopened sequentially in 2021 as it is shown they can meet conditions of safety, broad public demand for services and sustainability.”
Of note, the BC Centre for Disease Control says “there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through pool water. Proper operation, maintenance, and disinfection of pools and hot tubs with chlorine or bromine, should inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”
The re-opening of Surrey’s aquatic facilities is supported by guidelines from the BC & Yukon Lifesaving Society that detail “safe operations, modified rescue procedures and enhanced personal protective equipment for lifeguards,” Cavan added. “Via Sport has classified swimming as a lower risk sport where athletes are able to maintain physical distance where required.”