March 26, 2010

By Doug Bean
Special for

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The impact of the one-day delay in the start of the NCAA Division I Men's Swimming and Diving Championships at Ohio State's McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion extended beyond at least 18 student-athletes and one coach who were affected by a severe gastrointestinal illness.

The Ohio Department of Health on Thursday identified a norovirus, a grouping of related viruses that can lead to intense diarrhea, vomiting and cramping, as the cause of the outbreak. Lab samples indicated the presence of the virus in four people, The Columbus Dispatch reported Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the NCAA crisis management team made the decision Wednesday night to push back the national championships to reduce the possibility of additional cases developing during the competition. The meet began with preliminaries at noon Friday.

The highly contagious bug heightened concerns that other swimmers and divers might become infected as well as passengers who were on the same American Airlines flight that departed from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, as did the athletes and coaches from the University of Texas, Arizona and Stanford.

As the rescheduled opening day of competition began Friday, meet officials and medical personnel kept close watch on the development of any new cases. None were reported by school officials.

Anyone who displayed symptoms was instructed to stay away from public areas for a minimum of 48 hours to avoid the risk of exposure and a potential outbreak.

Although those who became ill all shared the same flight, public health investigators hadn't ruled out the possibility of the illness being contracted from food or at other locations.

"It's also possible they were exposed to something here in Columbus and we're concerned about that," Mysheika LeMaile-Williams, the city's medical director, told The Dispatch.

Precautions have been taken since the sickness was revealed late Tuesday to clean and disinfect the building. The pool water was thoroughly tested and extra chlorine added, and trainers have vigilantly sanitized handrails, doors, bathrooms and other surfaces. Hand sanitizers were installed throughout the facility

"The championships will proceed as scheduled and we will follow the normal protocol," said Tracy Huth, chairman of the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships competition committee. "We're just happy to get started. We're very pleased with the Ohio State administration and their staff and we look forward to a great meet."

Spokesmen from Arizona, Texas and Stanford would not disclose the names of ill team and staff members because of privacy laws, but Arizona appeared to be one of the hardest hit with nine swimmers reportedly affected. The Wildcats are expected to be one of the contenders for the team championship, but the toll on the student-athletes won't be fully understood until the competition progresses.

Before the severity of the norovirus was known, the decision to adjust the meet schedule received mostly positive reactions from coaches, but fans and several unnamed coaches privately questioned whether officials would have made the same decision had prominent title-contending teams not been involved.

"It's the only decision they felt they had," said Ohio State swimming coach Bill Wadley. "This is something we didn't have any control over. You have to get used to these things happening in life.

"Our team prepared for a seven-day championship. The Olympic Games and the world championships are seven-day championships and we talk about them going fast from two days before the meet to still being able to go fast several days after the meet.

"You have to go with the flow. In a way, it sort of took the edge off for the guys."

Swimmers, who are very precise in their tapering for big meets, had to alter their schedules and their mind-set. Divers as well were forced to deal with the anxiety of waiting an extra day for competition.

Some observers and bloggers questioned the postponement when the pool remained open for practice Wednesday and Thursday.

Fans who traveled to the event from all parts of the country were inconvenienced because they had to adjust travel plans. Some family members were forced to spend an extra night in a hotel and pay a change fee for their airline reservations. Ticket-holders were offered full refunds upon request.

Tim and Jolene Shields, the parents of California swimmer Tom Shields, spent an additional $1,000 to get to Columbus from Huntington Beach, Calif. They said other parents had to cancel their plans or depart early.

"I think it sets a bad precedent," Jolene Shields said. "I worry about what it's going to do for the sport in general. It's disconcerting. In other sports, they don't do that. This will be talked about for years."

However, medical personnel from the CDC and Ohio State in conjunction with the NCAA made the call to err on the side of caution.

The athletes had no choice but to adapt. Ohio State swimmers went to a movie, ate together and had a light workout Thursday. Other teams wandered in and out of the pool area. The Shields said their son was upset for about an hour and then moved on.

"We're good, we're ready to roll," said Ohio State's George Markovic, who qualified for the final Thursday in the 500-yard freestyle. "It didn't affect us that much. Our guys can adapt."