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On March 21, when the state of Illinois issued a shelter-in-place order to stem the spread of COVID-19, athletes were forced to find creative ways to get their workouts in. Some built home gyms in their basements and garages. Others went back to basics, forgoing treadmills and gym machines for outdoor runs and bodyweight exercises. Swimmers rigged resistance bands for dry land exercises, and the lucky few who had a heated pool bought swim tethers to strap themselves in for endless “laps.”
Meanwhile, the Seals bravely stormed the chilly waters of Lake Michigan from Chicago’s 57th Street Beach.
The Seals are a unique byproduct of COVID-19. The team likely would not have formed had it not been for the shelter-in-place order. When gyms, parks, community centers, and other swimming facilities closed, swimmers were scrambling for a way to get their workouts in. Bernard Lyles, director of the children’s triathlon program Tri-Masters Sport Initiative, decided to hop in to the waters of Lake Michigan, and issued an open invitation to anyone who wanted to join him.
At first, only three people showed up: Patricia Solomon, her sister Terry, and their friend, Brenetter Daniels—runners who used swimming as cross-training. Each week, a few more swimmers arrived: mostly runners with a smattering of triathletes, though a surprising number of brand-new swimmers, too. Today, the Seals are 23 members strong. Lyles recruited three additional coaches to accommodate the needs of beginner, intermediate, and advanced swimmers.
Though some pools have reopened for lap swimming in Chicago, the Seals continue to meet on the 57th Street Beach. That’s because the group is now more than just a meet-up of swimmers—it’s a critical support network. Ninety percent of Seal membership is Black women, coming together to prioritize their physical, mental, social, and emotional health.
“The program was of importance at this time due to the social isolation required by the pandemic and the social unrest as a result of the George Floyd killing,” explained Terry Solomon. “Our group needed a way to release stress and to process the new world order we were experiencing.”
Through group workouts, Seals have become a team both in and out of the water. The rules of the club—arrive early, help others put on their wetsuit, look out for each other, and be encouraging—were deliberately selected to foster a sense of community within members. Though the team began as a way to get a swim workout in while pools are closed, it’s evolved into something greater.
“I am proud that the Seals team is growing, and the members are 90% African American women of all ages and all skill levels,” said Solomon. “The members are from diverse professions including education, health care, finance, social work, and rideshare industry. Some are employed as full-time or part-time workers, retirees, or self-employed. The Seals reflect the strengths of the African American community that include brothers, sisters, fathers and sons, mothers with children, and extended family members who are committed to embracing a healthy lifestyle and building a like-minded community of swimmers.”