LEWISBURG — Instead of loud music, cheering fans and the buzz at the start of each event at the PIAA Class 3A swimming championships, an eerie quiet swept over an empty Kinney Natatorium Thursday night.
Hours earlier, Class 3A and 2A swimmers shuffled past each other on the campus of Bucknell University, one group headed to lunch after their morning prelims, the other heading to the pool for registration and practice.
The bustle of excited kids quickly turned to surprise and disbelief and emotions ranging from disappointment to heat break.
Due to concerns with the coronavirus outbreak, the PIAA Board of Directors unanimously voted to suspend all state championships, including swimming and diving. Meet Director Melissa Mertz gathered the coaches to inform them of the decision and word quickly spread throughout the building.
The 2A schools, some of whom had just arrived in Lewisburg, were to go home immediately. The 3A swimmers would not return, their completed prelims times deciding who won state medals, while the 3A girls diving championships would go on as scheduled.
It was a decision that Mertz could see coming, but one that still sent some competitors into fits of frustration and others into tears.
“I can certainly say that I understand (the emotion) because I brought everything up here. I had full intention of getting everybody in and getting them swimming and giving people the opportunity to earn a gold medal, a silver medal, whatever it may be,” Mertz said. “Through seven o'clock this morning I was fighting the good fight to keep it going, but by about 9:30, 10 o'clock, things had taken a turn.
“We had more information and we just had to make a different decision. But I certainly feel their pain and I know it's disheartening for them, but in the grand scheme of everything going on, it's one of those decisions you have to make and you have to understand.”
While the 3A boys were swimming Thursday morning, Mertz was bouncing between conference calls as PIAA officials gathered information from the governor's office and the state Department of Health. When it became obvious there was no alternative, Mertz decided not to inform the swimmers to ensure those yet to compete didn't have an unfair advantage of those who already finished and didn't know their initial swims would count as timed finals.
“We tried to, for consistency sake — for everybody — keep it the same,” Mertz said. “I know it's not easy; it's not ideal by any means. Usually, our theory is, if we have schools here, we want to get the championship done. However, this one, we're battling something that, from a public relations standpoint and just the information that we're getting, for the health and safety of everyone involved, we have to shut it down.”
According to an official statement from the PIAA, all basketball and the 2A boys and girls swimming and diving championships have been suspended “for minimally a two week period.”
If and when the meet resumes, it most likely will not be back at Bucknell, which has shut down.
PIAA officials began early, informal discussions about possible new locations, including the mention of Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg, which hosted the District Three swimming championships Feb. 28-29.