It wasn't long ago that Grace Hagemaster placed 11th in the 100 backstroke at the State Girls Swimming & Diving Meet.
In the aftermath of that accomplishment, she felt driven to work hard and finish higher next season. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the 16-year-old has barely been able to get in the water.
"It was really hard to have to just stop so abruptly," she said.
Watching Grace be cut off from her favorite sport has been tough for her family, too.
"As a parent, it's really hard to see them not be able to do what they love to do," her mom Christy said.
The pandemic shut down swimming pools in March and ever since, the sophomore at Lincoln-Way East High School has been relegated to working out in a small, inflatable pool her parents bought and placed inside the garage.
"It's allowed me to keep up a little bit of my technique, but it's just really a placeholder for swimming because it can't compare to what an actual pool is," Grace said.
Grace is one of many swimming enthusiasts frustrated that pools remain closed in the third phase of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's "Restore Illinois" plan to gradually reopen the state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is "no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds," though the CDC recommends individuals continue to practice social distancing and wear cloth face masks when not in the water.
"I don’t feel like it should be an issue to have swimmers in the water," said Grace. "I’m not saying that we need recreation pools open where it can be 80 kids in an eight-lane pool, not social distanced, pulling on each other, but just enough that we can have swimmers back in the water practicing like any other sport."
Jeff Arce, who chairs Illinois Swimming, agrees. His organization is the governing body for swimming in Illinois, falling under the USA Swimming umbrella. Illinois Swimming represents about 20,000 swimmers throughout the state. Arce has written a letter to Pritzker asking him to reconsider opening pools immediately.
"We appreciate the position the Governor and his staff is in right now, and I don’t envy their task," Arce said. "We believe that the science says that in a properly dealt-with manner – limiting contact points, limiting touch points, and limiting number of athletes in the water – that this can be done safely," he added.
Arce and Illinois Swimming have yet to receive a specific response that addresses the letter.
"We represent the most swimmers (for one state) in the country, and so for us to not be given a response, it is frustrating, it is challenging, but we’re going to keep trying, we’re going to keep working, and hopefully we get to a point where we’re back in the water and swimming," said Arce.
"There has been a lot of science about that the virus does not live in water, and we just want the governor to really look at the science," Christy added. "He’s into the science, so if he would look at the science, we would be really appreciative."
Each day that passes, Grace misses her favorite sport more and more, so she continues to hold out hope she'll get back in the water sooner rather than later.
"I’ve missed, really, everything," she said. "I’m hoping that in the long run, we’re able to at least have the competitive swimmers – or people who use swimming as a means of exercise – get [back] in the pool."