Making a Big Splash
29 Mar, 2018By: Michael Popke
Aquatics-Minded Communities Are Bringing in the Events with New and Innovative Venues
Americans hauled a lot of medals out of the pool in the 2016 Summer Olympics, but USA Swimming isn’t about to sit around and wait for the next Games. Instead, it’s making sure there’s a deep bench of swimmers ready to dive in, for years to come.
The USA Swimming Foundation, USA Swimming’s philanthropic arm, announced in November 2017 that it helped more than five million children learn to swim over the past 10 years. Nationally, the foundation partners with 850 learn-to-swim providers, community-based water safety advocates and national organizations to provide swimming lessons and educate children and their families on the importance of learning how to swim.
Many of those new swimmers have grown up to become competitive swimmers. At the same time, municipalities, colleges and universities and private operators are steadily increasing local interest in swimming programs by opening large-scale natatoriums that provide opportunities not only for swimming lessons and recreation programs but also for high-level competition.
As a result, more destinations are capable of hosting important local, regional and national events — which wasn’t always the case. Previously, a large, single natatorium often served the needs of several area communities, and it might have been the only venue of its kind for miles around.
What follows are profiles of eight destinations that, thanks to the splash made by high-profile facilities, welcome swimming and diving events (and always are looking for more).
When the University of Minnesota’s Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center opened in 1990, offering an eight-lane, 50-meter pool with a movable bulkhead — plus a separate diving well with two 1- and 3-meter spring boards, and 1-, 5-, 7.5- and 10-meter diving platforms — there weren’t many other facilities like it in the United States, according to Linda McKee, the university’s director of aquatics.
“We were the catalyst for a lot of other places to say, ‘We want to have a facility like that,’” McKee says. “We obviously wanted a first-class facility for our own athletes and the community, but the intent was to bring high-profile events to this city.”
With the capacity to house 1,350 spectators and 1,200 competitors, the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center has hosted 24 Big Ten Championships and 10 Division I NCAA Championships. In mid-March — only six weeks after Minneapolis hosted Super Bowl LII — the natatorium welcomed the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Swimming and Diving National Championships. It also hosts several USA Swimming championships.
“Having a strong swimming and diving community here is big, because we can go to those large groups — Minnesota Swimming, Minnesota Masters Swimming — and demonstrate that we have people who will volunteer to help run major events,” says Matt Meunier, director of Sports Minneapolis, a division of Meet Minneapolis, adding that he hopes to bring more USA Diving events to the Jean. K. Freeman Aquatic Center.
While Meet Minneapolis has been promoting swimming and diving opportunities for decades, Illinois South Tourism is just getting started.
The McKendree MetroRecPlex — a combination natatorium and ice facility, with a 10-lane competition pool and a large recreation pool for swimming lessons, water exercise classes and other activities (plus two NHL-size rinks) — opened in February 2017. The competition pool is home to McKendree University’s swimming teams, as well as USA Swimming events. In fact, the complex created the Seahawks Swim Club to help fill not only a void in the community but also fill the pool with regular events.
The privately owned facility, to which McKendree University acquired the naming rights, holds 850 spectators and includes two 1- and 3-meter diving boards and one five-meter diving platform.
“This is a whole new area for us,” says Jon Weaving, sales and marketing manager for Illinois South Tourism, located in nearby Swansea. “The region didn’t have anything even close to the MetroRecPlex.”
“We’re definitely seeking out more aquatics opportunities,” says Lauren Haukapp, director of marketing and sales for the facility. Restaurants and hotels likely will be added on the MetroRecPlex property within the next three to five years, she adds.
Fort Collins, Colorado
Another community that benefits from the combining of frozen and non-frozen water under one roof is the Edora Pool Ice Center — better known by its cool acronym EPIC — in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“We view EPIC as the swimming and diving hub of northern Colorado,” says Erik Barstow, director of sales for Visit Fort Collins. “Aquatics occupies a healthy place in the community.”
Indeed, two local USA Swimming clubs and four high schools call the facility home, and the Colorado High School Activities Association plans to host different divisions of the girls’ state swimming and diving championships there every year. Additionally, the facility has welcomed the Rocky Mountain Synchronized Swimming Association’s annual North Zone Championships.
Pool amenities include an indoor 10-lane, 50-meter-by-25-yard pool; two 1- and 3-meter diving boards; two moveable bulkheads and plenty of seating.
“We don’t do as much with diving as we do with swimming,” Barstow says, adding that the city increasingly is receiving requests from collegiate and club diving teams to train at EPIC during their spring breaks, which could help establish the facility as a training destination. “We’re not a ski destination, so we’re especially looking to bring in events in late winter and early spring.”
Federal Way, Washington
The Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, Washington, boasts a rich history of both swimming and diving. The 2,500-seat facility with an eight-lane, 50-meter-by-25-yard pool is a legacy venue from the 1990 Seattle Goodwill Games and maintains one of the most active competition schedules in the country, hosting more than 50 events and 350,000 visitors annually and bringing a reported economic impact of more than $7.5 million to the region. Those events have included the Olympic Trials, the Pac-12 Swimming and Diving Championships, and other national and international competitions. The pool also serves as a training center.
“We pride ourselves on going after collegiate and amateur events,” says Tim Johnson, who as director of economic development for the City of Federal Way is involved in bidding on swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming events. “There’s nothing quite like it in this region.”
The King County Aquatic Center hosted the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials in 2000 and 2012, and Johnson says the city is hoping the event returns in 2020. Additionally, the facility will welcome the MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) International ROV Competition for underwater robotics in May and the aquatics events of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in July.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Raleigh, North Carolina, consistently ranks in the top 10 of USA Swimming’s list of “Top Swim Cities” — which is based on the total number of USA Swimming members and new membership growth, the number of fitness swimmers and the number of Olympic qualifiers.
All those swimmers come in handy. “Local clubs are vital to helping secure and host events,” says Jason Philbeck, assistant director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. “In conjunction with the event operators and venue staff, local clubs help provide the staffing and resources needed for various aspects of event planning and operations.”
The majority of aquatics events in the Raleigh area happen at the Triangle Aquatic Center, a facility that offers a 50-meter competition pool; a 10-lane, 25-yard program pool; and an instructional pool. It can hold up to 1,000 spectators, with on-deck space for 800 swimmers, coaches and staff, and it annually hosts the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) Swimming State Championships in February and the North Carolina Special Olympics swimming competition in June.
Several USA Swimming events are on the calendar for 2018 and 2019, each of which will bring at least 500 swimmers to the facility, Philbeck says.
Additionally, the Pullen Aquatic Center is a 50-meter-by-25-yard pool with mezzanine spectator seating that hosts the NCHSAA Diving State Championships each February. The venue also was home to swimming competitions at the 2015 and 2016 Powerade State Games of North Carolina.
With a history of year-round use dating back more than 20 years, California’s Roseville Aquatics Complex — featuring an Olympic-size 50-meter outdoor competition pool, a recreation pool, a water slide and an interactive play area — has hosted the 2016 Speedo Sectional Western Zones and the 2017 USA Swimming Western Zone Age Group Championships in recent years.
In fall 2017, the facility closed for repairs that included a new pool deck and re-plastering of the competition pool. The $100,000 cost of the project was split between the City of Roseville and Placer Valley Tourism, which uses the complex to help market the area northeast of Sacramento as an aquatics destination.
The organization also donated $120,000 to the swim club that calls the facility home for new starting blocks and a new LED scoreboard. Both of those upgrades will fulfill the need for high-quality standards expected at USA Swimming events, says Kim Summers, director of marketing for Placer Valley Tourism.
A grand re-opening ceremony took place in February, and the facility is slated to host several high-profile events this year, including the 2018 U.S. Masters Synchronized Swimming Championships.
Such events close the complex to the public, but local residents happily share their facility, according to Summers. “People understand the economic impact this brings to the city and are willing to have the facility closed for the greater good of the community,” she says.
Greensboro, North Carolina
The Greensboro Aquatic Center (GAC) has made a long and illustrious career of hosting prestigious events including the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Olympic Trials, USA Swimming, USA Diving, US Masters Swimming, YMCA and NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships.
Located on the campus of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, the GAC offers an indoor eight-lane, 50-meter competition pool that can also accommodate up to 22 lanes for short course. The facility also has a 25-yard diving well with six swimming lanes and a therapeutic pool. Planned improvements include the construction of a fourth pool (to be located in a new, second building attached to the main complex) to accommodate the increased demands on the six-year-old facility.
“We just hosted the ACC Men’s and Women’s Diving National Championships,” notes Dennis Edwards, national sports sales manager for the Greensboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, “and the YMCA Short Course Swimming Nationals in April bring in about 6,000 people, including swimmers and spectators. March is when we hosted the NCAA Division II Swimming Championships, and we also host several pretty nice-sized local meets. Things are just going great.”
For almost two decades, aquatics activities in Lubbock, Texas, revolved around one major facility — the popular Pete Ragus Aquatic Center, which is owned and operated by the Lubbock Independent School District and boasts two eight-lane pools separated by two 3-meter diving boards and three 1-meter diving boards. That facility has undergone two renovations and, in 2016, the Lubbock Dive Club helped bring the 2016 USA Diving Region 11 Championships to the center, which also is home to several USA Swimming regional meets and the University Interscholastic League’s high school swimming and diving regional championships.
Officials at the natatorium also have a few things in the pipeline, according to Scott Harrison, director of sports for the Lubbock Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We bid on the 2019 and 2020 NAIA Swimming and Diving National Championships,” he notes proudly.
In 2016, Southwest Aqua Sports in Lubbock opened, specializing in indoor scuba diving and swimming. The privately owned facility has created a swim club and is helping enhance the city’s already strong aquatics culture. SDM