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To ensure pool time, St. Andrew’s swims outdoors — yes, during the winter

St. Andrew's swimming coach Ryan Marklewitz talks with team captain Tyler Povinelli after practice at the Montgomery Square Copenhaver Swim Club on Jan. 10. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

When Kate Schneider hopped out of the water during a St. Andrew’s swim practice three years ago, she immediately felt the frigid air against her skin. Flakes of snow fell from the sky as she exited the pool, but the future captain was undeterred by the cold.

Schneider and her teammates beelined toward a pile of snow, sprawled on the ground and flapped their limbs to make snow angels before quickly retreating to the warmth of the water.

She remembers the moment fondly.

For five seasons, the Lions have braved the outdoors during the winter swim season. Rain, sleet, snow or shine, Coach Ryan Marklewitz’s team jumps in an 82-degree outdoor pool for practice every weekday — as long as the wind chill outside the pool is above 25 degrees.

The Potomac, Md., program has grown accustomed to the regimen. Marklewitz said the team has canceled outdoor practice just once in five years because of weather.

“Swimming outside in a bathing suit when it’s 30 degrees and windy is not really something that most people would think of when they think of a high school swim team,” Schneider said. “But, I mean, that’s us.”

The St. Andrew’s girls will compete this week in the Independent School League championships, while the boys will test themselves Jan. 27 in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference championships.

Unlike other private schools in the area, the Lions don’t have an indoor pool on their campus to host practice. When Marklewitz took over what was originally a school club six years ago and started the varsity team, his small group of swimmers was able to practice only twice per week late in the evenings given the team’s lack of available pool space.

“We can’t just build a $1.5 million facility for a team that has six people on it,” Marklewitz said.

Marklewitz had heard of teams in Colorado and California that held practices in heated outdoor pools during the winter. He began looking for places in the area that could give his swimmers a similar athletic experience.

His research led him to the Bender Jewish Community Center, a facility in Rockville that was in the midst of constructing an outdoor pool. Marklewitz’s program trained three times per week at the Bender JCC for the next four years, an experience that helped the team blossom from a handful of swimmers to more than 20.

“It was met with a lot of enthusiasm, and it was surprising to me a little bit because I thought there was going to be more pushback,” Marklewitz said. “But I think the difference really was that the team wanted more for themselves and they knew that it wasn’t going to happen in a traditional way.”

Marklewitz’s team soon encountered problems with its new outdoor pool practice schedule. The JCC’s pool had just one heater, which would frequently break, forcing the team out of the water and into “dryland” exercises. The Lions missed close to half of their practices last season, senior captain Tyler Povinelli said, and were unable to swim for the majority of last January.

“We made jokes about being called the varsity dryland team instead of the varsity swimming team last year because we truly did workouts in the weight room as much as we were in the pool,” Povinelli said.

At the start of this season, the team moved over to the Montgomery Square Copenhaver Swim Club. It’s a five-minute drive from the school’s campus and is equipped with three heaters to keep the water at a swimmable temperature.

The first trial starts at the beginning of practice, senior Liza Matal said, when the team gauges whether the water or the air is warmer.

On some days, the swimmers sprint out onto the deck and into the water to stay out of the cold air, while on other days they dip their toes in, feel the cold water and stall on the pool deck until they’re ushered into the water by their coaches.

“It’s tough to train in really cold weather in a heated pool because you’re breathing in 30-degree air and you’re in 80-degree water, so your lungs are burning,” Schneider said. “But I think it just makes our training that much more effective.”

The Lions’ consistent practice schedule has led to unprecedented success. The girls are 4-3 and the boys are 2-4 — neither team won a meet during the 2019-20 season, and they combined for just one win last year.

On the worst days, Povinelli calls the outdoor practices “miserable.” On days with better weather, being outside is a breath of fresh air. But especially during cold, rainy or windy afternoons, Marklewitz tries to keep his practices light and fun.

The Lions often play “sharks and minnows” to keep warm during practice, and Marklewitz hosted a scrimmage on a cold day this year with a reward of hot chocolate. Those types of moments make swimming through the elements a bit more worthwhile.

“Even though you’re physically miserable and you’re freezing cold … when everyone else is going through it with you, you don’t really feel quite as bad for yourself,” Povinelli said. “It ends up building a really, really close-knit team because everybody learns to love the suffering together.”

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