Jackson grad Tondra makes splash in season debut
ALLIANCE When COVID-19 put sports and much of life on hold last year, one lingering question for each sport at various levels was how long it would take to get back competing.
The most-affected sports in that respect were winter sports such as swimming, wrestling and basketball, all of which saw their 2019-20 campaigns ended prematurely due to the pandemic. Former Jackson standout Jason Tondra was one of the athletes left wondering when his sport would resume and late last month, he and his Mount Union swimming and diving teammates finally received the answer to that question.
The Purple Raiders officially returned to action on Jan. 30, when they defeated Baldwin Wallace 170-64. It was, to say the least, a welcome return to the competition pool.
"It was awesome ... the first thing our coaches said was that it had been 350 days since our last meet," Tondra said. "It was the first time in nearly a year in a competitive atmosphere that wasn't one of our practices."
Having played three sports in high school, Tondra wasn't used to that kind of long hiatus from competing. He moved from football to swimming to lacrosse at Jackson, but the pandemic put college swimming on pause, leading the start of the season to be pushed back about two months.
The extra time before the start of the season may not have been what Tondra and his teammates wanted, but the goal was to put the extra prep time to good use. If the first meet of the season is any indication, they succeeded in that endeavor.
"It was great ... I've been working really hard in practice this year with the season pushed back and having more time in practices to prepare much better really helped," Tondra said. "I think it showed in my races and showed in my finishes."
He won both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle in the win over Baldwin Wallace, as well as swimming a leg on the winning 200-meter freestyle relay. Those finishes earned him Ohio Athletic Conference Swimmer of the Week honors for the week of Feb. 1.
Part of the process of preparing for the season was training alongside a pair or former Jackson teammates. Like Tondra, junior Nick Dye and sophomore Maximus Betscakos have made the short trek from Jackson Township to Alliance and emerged as contributors for the Purple Raiders.
Given the success the Jackson swimming and diving program has enjoyed in recent years, it's no surprise that some of its former athletes are making their mark at the next level. It's an especially fun experience for Tondra, who is swimming alongside friends and able to reflect how far each of them has come over the years.
"It's really cool to get to see the ways we've changed throughout our lives and how hard they work," he said of Dye and Betscakos. "Coming from a similar background and a similar training style, that makes it easier."
Although he didn't go to Jackson in elementary and middle school, Tondra met Dye in eighth grade and the two became friends. He didn't expect they would end up at the same college, but said Dye was the one who first talked to him about Mount Union and possibly swimming there.
"We're great buddies and he was the first person who told me about Mount Union and everything followed suit from there," Tondra said. "He's helped me with everything from classes to growing as a swimmer and he's really been like a mentor to me."
Those efforts have had a positive impact on Tondra, but neither he nor Dye could have known exactly what to expect when it came to being an athlete during the current pandemic. With empty stands at meets, only 24 people allowed on the pool deck and team lifting sessions and practices broken up into smaller groups to allow for social distancing, everything looks different this season.
Although he typically listens to music and doesn't hear much of the noise around him leading up to races, Tondra admitted it's been a big change swimming in a quieter setting. With just four meets scheduled for the regular season, the Purple Raiders are doing intrasquad mock meets and other simulated competitive settings in an effort to get as much swimming in under meet-like settings as possible.
Life is also much different outside the pool, where days are marked by online classes, Zoom meetings with professors and very few chances to enjoy the normal fun that fills the lives of college students in non-pandemic times.
Relegated to spending more time at home, Tondra finds himself missing much of the college experience as he works toward his degree in civil engineering. It's a field he became interested in because his father and multiple family members on that side of his family are engineers. Growing up, he would work on fixing up an old family cottage in Carroll County, learning about woodworking and construction. The hope is to have a career in structural or construction engineering, continuing his passion for designing, planning and building.
That is, of course, after he builds what he hopes will be a successful college swimming career and more memories alongside his friends and teammates.