URBANA — No relay races.
Protective face masks on athletes not actively competing (that element is carrying over to 2021).
And no state meet.
That’s how the 2020 girls’ swimming and diving season played out.
The proceedings were even stranger for coach Hannah Newman‘s Uni High team, which competed in just three meets as a precaution because of the pandemic.
Sally Ma knew it wouldn’t be an optimal environment for her junior year.
So the 2019 News-Gazette All-Area girls’ swimming and diving Athlete of the Year instead gave all of her efforts to the Champaign Heat club team with the plan of returning to the Uni High program in 2021.
That’s what has transpired for Ma, who is now a senior captain for the Illineks.
“I feel like it means so much more,” Ma said. “I’m just super excited to see what’s going to happen.”
Ma will attempt to improve upon her impressive sophomore results — state runner-up in the 50-yard freestyle and eighth in the 100 freestyle — beginning with a Sept. 2 dual at Olympia.
“I want to try and branch out some more,” Ma said, “but I think my main focus is still going to be sprint free. Maybe a little on the 100 fly.”
Ma stayed sufficiently busy with coach Will Barker‘s Heat squad. She competed in multiple spring and summer meets.
“Practices might be shorter than what I’m used to, but I got the most out of each minute,” Ma said. “I can see myself getting stronger and more efficient in the water.”
Ma said efficiency is a keyword for her these days. Not only with her swim strokes, but also with her time in the pool.
With the pandemic making pool access difficult to come by, Ma has had to settle for “an hour or 50 minutes compared to an hour-30 or two hours.”
“But I can make up that time by doing things that will strengthen me in the weight room,” Ma said. “Just when I am in the pool, I’m making sure I’m not wasting much time.”
The majority of Ma’s interactions with fellow Uni High students during the previous school year occurred through Zoom.
Returning to the Illineks’ swim practices relieves her of that reality.
“We have this bond,” Ma said, “and we’re spending so much time together.”
Ma also spent some of her time in the last year finding a college home, both academically and athletically. She’s committed to an institution, though she’s not ready to publicly announce it quite yet.
That just leaves her aforementioned senior season to be completed.
Ma is the clear-cut face of Illineks swimming and diving at this point. A program once paced by the likes of recent Olympian/University of California senior Ema Rajic and Cal freshman Reed Broaders now will go as Ma goes.
“I want to break 50 (seconds) in the 100 free and break 23 in the 50 again,” Ma said. “Then, as far as the team goes, I just want us all to have fun. ... I feel like we can just work really hard and have a lot of fun.”