It’s a sporting lockdown – and the Condors are thriving on the buzz of competition and camaraderie.
For Polish swimmer Marcin Cieślak and his American teammate Hali Flickinger, life inside the bubble for the International Swimming League (ISL) Season 2020 is proving to be a lot of fun.
The pair are among more than 320 swimmers from 10 international teams taking part in the biggest sporting event in the world this year. Teams are accommodated in two hotels on Margaret Island on the Danube River, each in their own bubble to reduce the risks of COVID-19.
Away from training in the pool, lifting weights in the gym and high-intensity racing, the Condors’ butterfly supremos are relishing their moments of relaxation and free time.
Whether it’s a 90-minute breather in the daily schedule to take a stroll around the island with teammates, or a chance to play video games, watch films or play cards, the athletes are making the most of their downtime.
We asked Cieślak, 28, and Flickinger, 26, to describe life behind the scenes in the ISL bubble in Budapest, and they were happy to oblige.
What’s the mood like on the Condors’ team?
Cieślak: “It’s great. Winning the first meet definitely helps. The atmosphere is very relaxed. Our GM Jason [Lezak] is one of the coolest guys I’ve met. He’s very relaxed and calm, which helps us with staying positive. So far nothing but good things have been happening to us. The team is very tight, so it does feel good.”
Flickinger: “The best. I can hands down say, and I know I’m biased, I do believe our team is the closest team … we just love being with one another. This is a family and we treat it like that.”
How do you relax when you’re not training or racing?
Cieślak: “Usually working or maybe reading a book. I have a business [a swimming fitness tracker product] that I run so I still have three or four hours a day of working, which is good because I hardly ever get bored. We play some video games, we play a lot of cards and watch movies together, reading books and just talking and getting to know each other. It’s like a guilty pleasure thing, but we watch this Polish reality TV show, me and the two other Polish guys. It’s good for relaxing.”
Flickinger: “At the beginning when we weren’t as tired, we played a lot of games together. But the lack of routine has started to really kick in so we’ve dialed back on that a bit … we get in some games here and there. Now everyone is in one area, doing all their recovery and still getting to spend time with one another. We have lots of card games, Uno Flip has been a huge one.”
What fun activities have the Condors’ management organized to boost team morale?
Cieślak: “Our head coach has some group games that have been every Sunday. We’re playing a Jeopardy game, a quiz about swimming. A fun activity will be just going to the meet, watching a different team, analyzing different races and see how others perform. Also, just eating dinner with my teammates. We have single rooms. I have had dinners where I’ve sat at the table for two hours, finished eating in about 20 minutes but then talked to someone for an hour and a half.”
Flickinger: “They offered a bus tour to go around Budapest a few days ago. We don’t have too many meetings. We just love being around one other, that it is pretty easy for us to really connect. We have had a few team bonding exercises to really get to know one another and spend some time as a team together and laugh and joke.”
Does listening to music help you relax and prepare for a race?
Cieślak: “On a daily basis, I like funky music and all different kinds. It could be rap, rock or pop music … something with a good melody and vibe. On race day, it would be something more aggressive that gets me pumped, maybe some electronic music – for example, Imagination by Gorgon City – or heavy rock to get me going.”
Flickinger: “Not so much. I love talking with people and being around my teammates. It takes time my mind off swimming and the pressure, especially now after not seeing everybody for so long. It’s really great to socialize.”
You’ve both competed at the Olympics. How does life in the ISL bubble compare to the Olympic Village?
Cieślak: “This is on a very small scale but there are similarities. The Olympic Village is like a bubble … no one from the outside can get in. It’s athletes living, training, resting, eating and competing. The ISL bubble has been done very professionally, as you go through your day and all the procedures with COVID. You can tell everything has been thought through – the schedules, the buses, dining, all the COVID tests we get. We definitely feel taken care of and safe here.”
Flickinger: “I’ve really enjoyed it. The ISL is doing a fantastic job keeping us all safe and the protocols that are in place. Yes, we are stuck in this bubble, but I haven’t seen my friends that are on my team and other teams in so long it’s nice to be around one another and be able to spend some time with each other. I do think it’s a bit different [from the Olympics]. We are in a hotel and the food is a little better. When it comes to being around everybody, I feel like actually here we are all closer because we are in two hotels that are connected.”
Are you enjoying the ISL?
Cieślak: “For sure, just the structure … I am a big fan. I competed in the NCAA in the US for five years. I think this is done very similarly to the NCAA structure. It’s super fast, you have the team factor, a lot of sprinting, relays play a big part. It’s the type of swimming I have always enjoyed. I wish there were more events like this outside the collegiate league in the States. I think everyone here is grateful for the opportunity to race at the highest level, competing with the best swimmers in the world. You can definitely tell people take it seriously and want to do well and have a lot of focus going into their swims.”
Flickinger: “This bubble has been so good. I am so thankful for ISL for putting this on. I think they are doing an absolutely amazing job. It’s been great so far. This is really, really good preparation for down the line and, hopefully, at the Olympic Games. It’s a great opportunity, not only for us athletes who get to be a part of it but for our sport in general. It’s going to do great things for our sport. The fact that we are going into week three and we still are having such good, positive experiences and keeping COVID under control just shows how good the organization is and we are lucky to be a part of.”
Do you feel safe with the ISL’s COVID protocols, which include tests every five days?
Cieślak: “At the beginning when we started mixing all together, I had a little fear that maybe there could be an outbreak of COVID. But now as everyone tested negative so many times, we know within the bubble there is no risk really. We have COVID marshals to make sure the teams follow the rules with masks and no hugging or close interactions.”
Flickinger: “When I first came over here I was nervous, not knowing what to expect. I thought we would get here and they would be super strict at first and then it’s going to fade off. But that’s not the case at all. They are really doing a very diligent job about making sure we are safe and that’s their priority here. I can feel it and feel super safe here. They provide masks if you forget one. Every time you check into a new building your temperature is checked and you use hand sanitizer. It is very regulated.”
What do you think of the dining hall’s socially distanced individual tables, and what’s the food like?
Cieślak: “Everyone sits by themselves. They are fairly close together. So you sit by yourself but you can still have someone 2 meters away from you … it’s good enough to chat. The food is great. We are getting everything we need and there is a good variety too, we are not getting tired of it.”
Flickinger: “When we walked in, we all joked ‘what standardized test are we taking today?’ Now we are used to it. It’s another step they are taking to make sure we are safe. They have pretty good desserts … these finger-type desserts, you can get a bunch of them and try different ones. They are really good. Pasta has been huge for everyone.”
Overall, what are the best things about the Budapest bubble?
Cieślak: “Having the opportunity to live with the swimming community, interacting with all the athletes and getting to know each other, I think that’s my favorite thing besides competing.”
Flickinger: “We are all safe, that is very important. When do you get the chance to spend this much time with friends who you may not live super close with? A lot of fellow teammates are all spread out, not just in the U.S. but around the world. Very rarely do we get the chance to be together this much. I think that is really special and we’ll all really cherish that.”