JUST when they thought it was safe to go back into the water…the Scottish Government decided otherwise.

Scottish Swimming chief executive Euan Lowe had been quietly optimistic ahead of the First Minister’s update on Thursday that the chance to re-open at least some of the country’s pools would not be far away.

The decision, then, to keep gyms, leisure facilities and indoor courts closed until September 14 – pending a review in late August – was not what anyone operating in sport wanted to hear, especially on the back of an already challenging period.

“I’m naturally disappointed and struggling to understand the rationale,” said Lowe via text once the update had been announced. His colleague, Scottish Swimming chair Graeme Marchbank, admitted to feeling “bitterly disappointed” and “frustrated”.

The tone was at odds with Lowe’s bullish positivity ahead of the announcement. Making the hundreds of swimming centres up and down the country compliant with social distancing and other health measures both in and out of the water has proved challenging but the feeling was they were “as prepared as they can be” for a phased return of swimming.

“We’ve worked with the government and sportscotland to give our clubs and, in particular, local leisure trusts and authorities the guidance that they need to safely open up swimming pools once we get the chance to do so,” explained Lowe.

“We have most things in place. We have three pools up and running albeit for a restricted number of performance athletes and that has been an important first step for us to learn from those venues. What does it take? What do we need to adjust? And learnings have come from that. We now know we can do this.”

For the thousands who are learning to swim or enjoy a recreational dip, the experience will be somewhat different when pools are eventually allowed to re-open.

“You need to take into consideration things like cleaning regimes, the flow of people through the building and the use of changing rooms and ventilation systems before you even get to the pool,” explained Lowe.

“We’ve come up with an approach that we’re calling “beach ready” where you come with your costume on under your clothes so you spend the minimum amount of time in the changing room. And then towel down or have a very quick shower once you’ve been in chlorinated water for an hour or so cleaning all the bugs off you.

“And we’re going to have to expect a reduced number of swimmers in the water just to maintain distancing based on guidelines.”

The wait is at least over for those operating at the elite end of the sport, with the national swimming academy at the University of Stirling, Edinburgh University’s St Leonard’s facility and the Aberdeen Sports Village operational again for around 50 performance swimmers, para-swimmers and divers.        

With the Olympics just a year away, it was vital to get them back into the water as soon as possible.

“The Scottish Institute of Sport has been very innovative [throughout lockdown] in keeping athletes fit and engaged for when the opportunity came to get back into the water,” added Lowe. “And now they’re back. The performance guys feel quite privileged to be in the water when there are thousands more who aren’t able to get there yet.”

The financial implications for those in the sport – from leisure centres all the way up to the governing body itself – continue to bite. And an additional six-week wait won’t help.

“Financially we’ve been hit hard,” admitted Lowe. “We’re relatively okay short-term but what happens in the long term is a tougher thing. We’re forecasting to lose membership out of this which is a concern as it will be a long haul to get back to where we are just now.

“It’s tough for everybody. We’re aware of the financial difficulties for pool providers and our clubs the longer they need to stay out of the water.”

Lowe hoped swimming would eventually recover to again fill a place at the heart of many people’s lives.

“Swimming was said to be one of the activities that people have missed the most in lockdown,” he noted.

“Most pools are hubs not just for clubs but for families or people who just enjoy that space. It’s a great activity with so many health benefits.

“The whole sporting sector is going to have a long journey back to recovery with the income that has been lost. But we can’t afford to lose our swimming pools.”