Team USA won 30 medals in the swimming pool at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo last summer — 11 gold, 10 silver and nine bronze. Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Diving Team brought home three medals, with the women’s team having its most successful Games since 1988.
Younger swimmers and divers dominated the rosters and demonstrated the constant evolution of both sports. In fact, some future Olympians likely are training and competing right now at indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities nationwide.
From Texas to Illinois and from Florida to Nebraska, sports tourism officials are eager to welcome swimmers, divers and their families to facilities that can accommodate multiple levels of competition.
Let’s dive into eight of them.
For years, Arlington high school swimming teams had to travel outside of the school district to train and compete, which meant they didn’t have a “home pool advantage.”
All that changed when the Arlington Independent School District’s Athletics Center opened in 2020. That facility is anchored by the district’s first-ever natatorium, a 13,500-square-foot facility with an Olympic size competition pool featuring moveable bulkheads, a diving area with four boards, a 2,500-square-foot warm-up pool and seating for 1,000 spectators. The pool was built in Italy and shipped in pieces to Texas.
The sports facility, financed by a 2014 bond package that also included the Arlington ISD Center for Visual and Performing Arts, also houses an arena for wrestling, basketball and volleyball. It is located near the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium and the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Park.
“We want to make sure we’re appealing to a broad group of people, and swimming was something we weren’t involved with that much,” says Matt Wilson, executive director of the Arlington Sports Commission. “And now what we have isn’t just a swimming pool. This pool is a destination, not just for people in the local area, but for people across Texas and across the country.”
Among the high-profile meets hosted early on was the 2021 Long Course Texas Age Group Swimming Championships, and Wilson hopes to attract USA Swimming regional meets soon. He noted that at least one national record has been set in the pool, which has already been referred to as a “fast” pool.
“Everything is designed to make the water flat, and flat water is fast water,” Wilson says. “The lane lines take any waves and dissipate them into flat water, and the sides don’t have any return. So if a wave hits the side of the pool, it doesn’t come back. It dissipates immediately. It was really important for us to have a fast pool, and fast pools are what people want to swim in.”
El Paso, Texas
Arlington isn’t the only major city in Texas to have opened a natatorium in recent years. The 36,000-square-foot Westside Natatorium, operated by the City of El Paso Parks and Recreation Department, debuted in 2018 and hosts everything from local meets to college and international competitions. The 50-meter-by 25-yard pool includes a moveable bulkhead, warm-up areas, courses for water polo and synchronized swimming, spectator seating for 780 fans and movable bleachers on the deck that hold up to 224 competitors.
Another indoor pool, this one on the other side of El Paso at the city-run Eastside Regional Park, also offers a 50-meter competition pool with a diving well and one- and three-meter diving boards, as well as seating for 800 spectators and 400 swimmers.
“With budget constraints, travel logistics and the sheer number of choices available, it can be easy to default to a larger, more-familiar city to host your event. El Paso gives you the red-carpet treatment … and we’re often more accommodating and affordable than our larger counterparts,” says Emi Diaz, advertising and marketing manager for Visit El Paso, adding that new hotels and waterparks make the city even more desirable to owners of swimming and diving events.
Speaking of fast pools, the Ann Marie Rogers Swimming and Diving Pool at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Natatorium on the University of Florida campus is considered one of the fastest in the world, because the water remains so calm during competition, according to Joleen Cacciatore Miller, executive director of the Gainesville Sports Commission.
“The pool bottom slopes rapidly from five feet to 18 feet, greatly reducing the rebound of waves from the bottom,” she says. “The extensive gutter system also absorbs water slapping against the sides to help eliminate waves.”
The pool, home of the Gators swimming and diving program, has hosted many high-profile college, Junior Olympics and USA Swimming events since it opened in 1981. It can accommodate multiple configurations, including two 25-yard courses with a warm-up area in the middle; two 25-meter courses; or a full 50-meter-long course, and the venue has accommodated up to 3,000 spectators for large national events.
Other swimming venues in Gainesville include the Dwight H. Hunter Pool and the H. Spurgeon Cherry Pool, both 50 meters with long- and short-course setup available, plus one- and three-meter diving boards.
“Alachua County and the City of Gainesville have highly competitive youth swim clubs in the community, as well as on the collegiate level with University of Florida’s Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving team, plus we have present Olympians training daily,” Cacciatore Miller says. “And it is true Florida Olympians such as Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel use the Stephen C. O’Connell Center’s five-lane 50-meter outdoor pool for Olympic training.”
Lake County, Florida
Located about 90 minutes south of Gainesville is the Orlando Health National Training Center (OH-NTC) in Clermont, which is one of the only long course training facilities in central Florida. The 50-meter-by-25-yard outdoor heated pool offers 23 short course lanes and 10 long course lanes, and in 2017 it underwent a major renovation when crews replaced the liner and sand filters, updated lighting, repaired the gutters and moveable bulkhead, and installed new starting blocks. The upgrade also resulted in 20 percent more lane space for long course training.
More recently, in 2021, officials expanded the pool deck’s footprint by 15 percent, installed new LED lights and a new scoreboard, and added spectator seating.
Business is picking back up again after teams canceled training trip plans in 2020, according to Mateo De Angulo, sports business coordinator at the center. Teams that trained at the facility this past winter hailed from states as far away as Texas and Minnesota, and the pool is open for triathlon training, too. The venue will host the annual Karen Hohne Memorial Invitational in July, which attracts teams from Florida and other states.
“With our new pool upgrades, we hope to keep attracting more swimmers and athletes, as well as high-profile events like the UANA (Swimming Union of the Americas) Olympic Qualifier that we hosted last May.”
Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Carlisle, Pennsylvania
The 21,000-square-foot Kunkel Aquatic Center at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, featuring the 50-meter-by-25-yard McGinness Pool, also has undergone renovations in recent years.
“For the most part, we have conducted maintenance-related projects,” says Shawn Carty, senior associate athletic director for athletics and recreation at the college. “The facility was painted, rewiring work was performed on the scoring system, and most recently we drained the pool to perform tile and grout work. None of these is glamorous but the work was necessary to ensuring the longevity of the facility.”
The pool seats almost 500 spectators and includes a state-of-the-art UV purification system that allows for lower chlorine levels in the pool, and college officials say the facility attracts national and international swim clubs and teams to Lancaster year-round. In February, for example, Franklin & Marshall hosted the Centennial Conference Championships and the 2022 Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships. Other high-profile events have included the Middle Atlantic Junior Olympic Long Course Championships and the New Jersey YMCA 13 & Over State Championships.
West of Lancaster, in Carlisle, is the Keystone Aquatic Center, which opened in 2018 with the intent of bringing high-level swimming events to central Pennsylvania. Mission accomplished, as the facility (which includes eight 50-meter course lanes, 22 25-yard short course lanes, 12,000 square feet of deck space and seating for 700 spectators) will host the Middle Atlantic Senior USA Swimming Championships in March and the Colonies Masters Zone Championships in April.
“The KAC has handled USA Swimming championships and college conference meets, [and has been] a backdrop for a national pharmaceutical commercial campaign,” says Scott Zacharda, president of the facility. He adds that Cumberland Valley High School also hosts a handful of USA Swimming events and two local high school championship meets each year.
Although Omaha gets most of the aquatics attention in Nebraska as the longtime home of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, Lincoln has two competitive pools (one indoors and one outdoors) that are part of the capital city’s sports tourism offerings.
The Bob Devaney Sports Center Natatorium on the University of Nebraska campus features a 25-yard, 10-lane pool with seating for 1,000 spectators. It also includes a diving well with one- and three-meter springboards and a five-meter platform. In addition to serving as the home pool for the university’s women’s swimming and diving program, the facility hosts the annual Nebraska School Activities Association Swimming and Diving Championships.
The Huskers also use the city-owned Woods Pool, a 50-meter outdoor training facility and public pool equipped with a separate 25-meter warm-up pool and a diving well with five-, seven- and 10-meter diving platforms. That lighted facility has hosted USA Swimming regional and sectional meets over the past five years, according to Derek Bombeck, sales development manager for the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We have great swimming clubs in Lincoln, and they are the ones who come to us with potential events the city can host,” Bombeck says. “For our regional swimming events, we always make sure that we can exceed the amenities that other cities offer. We take care of hotel reservations for them, we try to find meal-deal packages for them. In some cases, we get food trucks to come out to the facility. They are a premier event when they’re in Lincoln.”
Illinois is a big state, with ILLINOISouth Tourism representing 21 southern counties stretching from the Mississippi River on the Missouri state border to the Wabash River on the Indiana border.
“There is a lot of untapped potential in terms of swimming and diving in southern Illinois,” says Andy Waterman, communications director for ILLINOISouth Tourism, which is headquartered in Swansea. “There is certainly room for the sport to grow in popularity throughout the region.”
The two most prominent indoor facilities that host swimming and diving events are the McKendree MetroRecPlex in O’Fallon, and the Dr. Edward J. Shea Natatorium at the Southern Illinois Student Recreation Center in Carbondale. Both feature Olympic-size pools with diving equipment at various heights. The SIU facility hosted the Missouri Valley Conference Swimming & Diving Championships in 2021.
Meanwhile, the outdoor six-lane Marshall Community Pool recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and hosts competitions, and it will provide the 300-meter swimming component of the Fit Foodie Triathlon in June for the third consecutive year.
“I think the most important thing to keep in mind for organizers of events is that southern Illinoisians are legitimately excited to host visitors. The biggest reason for that is because our area has so much to offer that many folks simply don’t know about,” Waterman says. “If you attend or host an event at the McKendree MetroRecPlex in O’Fallon, you’re in an urban area with a lot to offer within a 15-minute radius. Downtown St. Louis is only a 20-minute drive, and that is a draw, as well. In Carbondale, the facilities are not far away from lodging and restaurants, either, but it’s the outdoor opportunities outside of competition time that really make this place special. Our message to organizers is that if you are looking for amenities and adventures to really appeal to your participants and their families, southern Illinois has so much to offer.” SDM