Swim practices, like so many other things, became a casualty of COVID-19 early this year.
With pools closed, swimmers got creative to maintain their fitness. Abby McCulloh found her training spot at Lake Oconee.
“My family moved to our lake house so that I could train in the lake and go on my four-mile open water swims every day just to attempt to stay in shape,” said the Parkview senior, the Daily Post’s co-swimmer of the year the past two seasons. “Because I’m just not a runner or a dry land (exercise) person.”
The March weather, when the coronavirus caused problems, was far from ideal.
“It was freezing,” McCulloh said. “It was so cold. I was just thankful I could still eat as much as I want because I was swimming.”
When practices resumed at SwimAtlanta, those lake swims paid off. She said her coach, Chris Davis, worked the swimmers hard in the early practices, and she returned ready — for the most part.
“Training in a lake is nowhere close to training in a pool,” McCulloh said. “Your stroke is different. In a lake, it’s more of a bigger, open stroke versus in the pool you’ve got to be tight and you’ve got turns. I remember when we jumped in, when we came back for the first practice, and I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do a flip turn.’”
That McCulloh worked so hard away from her usual club practices was no surprise to Davis, who has witnessed her work ethic at SwimAtlanta for years. There were no meets to prepare for, but she kept her focus.
“Certainly the training (delay) has not impacted her at all,” Davis said. “She’s a ferociously hard worker. Any time she gets in (the pool), she goes after it. That part is great. She just hasn’t been able to go anywhere to show off (at meets). … The training side of it, I think she loves to work hard. She likes to train. Not everybody does that. A lot of people love to race, but they don’t like to train. But she loves to work hard and train.”
That mindset has served her well, and made her one of the state’s top swimmers.
At the high school level, McCulloh swept the Gwinnett County and state championships in her two individual events, the 200- and 500-yard freestyle, as both a sophomore and junior. She owns the Parkview, county and county-meet records in both events, toppling the 200 free county mark (which had held since 2012) at last year’s county meet with a time of 1 minute, 47.86 seconds. She won the state championship in the 500 free in 4:46.21, but has her sights on Elizabeth Hill’s state record in the race, set at 4:40.93 in 2004.
“Every year I say I want to break that state record and every year I get close,” said McCulloh, who also was state runner-up in the 200 and 500 free as a freshman. “I think at this point it’s just a matter of execution at state. I know I can go the time. It’s just, can I do it when I need to do it?’ I’ll work toward it and I want to have as strong of a season as I can considering the circumstances. Me, Sydney (Walker) and Sarah (Livingston), my other Parkview captains, we’re really going to try and make this season as positive and encouraging for the team as we can. I just think it’s more about having a good final run. That’s what I’m really focused on this year.”
The Parkview coaches are confident another big season is on the way.
“Abby has been a dominant force in the distance freestyle events in the county and state all four years of her high school career,” Parkview head coach Eric Brown said. “Her time in the 500 freestyle is creeping close to the state record, and ranks her as one of the top 500 freestylers in the country. Though more of a distance swimmer, Abby loves the relays as well. Last year, she anchored our 400 freestyle relay to a state championship. Abby is always striving to be better. Watch for her to drop even more time this season.”
The return to high school swimming brings a return to normalcy to some degree because it reunites her with many of her high school friends. The 4.0-plus student (she ranks in the top 30 academically among Parkview’s seniors) takes three classes online daily — AP microeconomics, AB calculus and honors British literature — and heads to her work study job at SwimAtlanta, where she teaches swimming lessons.
She is excited to be back with her Parkview teammates for what she hopes is a special season, even though COVID-19 restrictions will make an impact.
“High school season is probably what’s going to save 2020 for me,” said McCulloh, who is considering in-person learning second semester to finish high school with her friends. “I know it’s going to be weird because we can’t have team dinners and that sort of stuff. I’m one of the captains this year and I know we’re going to organize some team Zooms before the meet. We have group masks, which as silly as that sounds, at least it’s something we all share. I think it will be fun to get back into racing and just be around the team. That will be good.
“Parkview swim and dive is I think very unique and unlike every other team because we’re so close. Every other team, you see them maybe they cheer for each other and that sort of thing. But I feel like the Parkview team really is one and we stand together at every meet we go to. I feel like the coaches do a good job — it’s super cheesy — but we do feel like a family at the end of the season.”
After Parkview, McCulloh plans to swim in the Southeastern Conference for Auburn, where she committed almost a year ago. Her future in distance races is bright, according to her coach.
“I’d be very, very surprised if she’s not at NCAAs and scoring (at Auburn),” Davis said. “I think she has that in her. … I think she really wants to make NCAAs. She wants to go there and score. She wants to help Auburn be really good. I think she’ll take her game up a notch. You should when you go to college. I think the ones that are really good find a way to take their game up to the next level.”