With COVID-19 surging, swimmers return to racing in the US

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Ous Mellouli dives in for the men's 400 meter freestyle at the U.S. Open swimming championships Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Irvine, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

IRVINE, Calif. – Erica Sullivan and seven others dove into the pool at the sound of the starter's beep. They began churning through 16 laps of the 800-meter freestyle, signaling the return of major swimming competition in the U.S. for the first time since mid-March.

“I haven’t legitimately raced since January, so just having a taste of it again feels really good,” said Sullivan, a U.S. national team member competing in three freestyle distance events in the U.S. Open in Irvine.

The three-day meet runs through Saturday at nine sites across the country. Results from timed finals in each city are combined to determine winners of each event.

“This is the first step in the right direction,” said Jon Urbanchek, the 84-year-old former Michigan coach who still strolls the deck assisting other coaches.

Irvine is hosting about 240 swimmers — a mix of national team members, collegians and high schoolers — competing outdoors under strict safety guidelines at a time when COVID-19 is surging again in many parts of the country. Some of the other sites are indoors.

The two biggest U.S. stars — Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel — aren't participating this weekend. Ledecky is training in Northern California; Dressel is competing in the International Swimming League's bubble in Hungary.

Ryan Lochte, seeking to make his fifth Olympic team at age 36, is competing at the U.S. Open site in Sarasota, Florida. He finished third in the 200 individual medley with a time of 2 minutes, 1.05 seconds on Friday.

“I still have the world record, but for me that’s history. That ship has sailed,” Lochte said by phone. “I’m just trying to make a name for myself again in the sport.”