You hear it a lot: “one of the fastest pools in the country.” But what does it mean? What makes a pool 'fast' and, when planning a sports event, how important is 'fast water' anyway?
Bolstered by the popularity and success of Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin and Allison Schmitt, swimming and diving are seeing a surge. As more athletes join the sport, natatoriums are in ever-higher demand. The field of natatorium design is keeping pace, too, developing new ways to build faster pools while also delivering designs that are better for athletes, spectators and the planet.
The Facility as Foundation
Invitationals represent some of the largest competitions in the sport, with events like the Southwest Ohio High School Swimming and Diving Classic topping the charts. Approximately 110 schools entered more than 3,000 swimmers and 170 divers in the event, which is billed as America’s largest invitational. Held at St. Xavier High School’s Keating Natatorium in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Southwest Ohio High School Swimming and Diving Classic is anchored, as many highly successful events are, by an extraordinarily successful swimming and diving program.
The St. Xavier High School swimming and diving team – the AquaBombers – is Ohio’s winningest athletic program, and Keating Natatorium is its home. The eight-lane Olympic-sized pool has an illustrious history, too, hosting the AAU national championship in 1970 as well as decades of successful St. Xavier events, then receiving upgrades in 2004.
Speaking to Ryan Ernst of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Charles Keating, Jr., who built the facility with his brother William, said, "Our view from the beginning was to produce a pool that produced Olympic champions and college scholarships.”1
St. Xavier’s coach, Jim Brower, in the same article, confirmed that the plan worked. "It's certainly not a coincidence," he said. "It's a wonderful facility, especially for a high school venue. We've consistently had 80 or so kids (on the team) for the last decade. You really can't accommodate that many kids with less space than we have. Bottom line: We wouldn't be able to do what we do without that facility."
With the recent addition of 626 permanent seats and digital video scoreboards, the facility features a 50-meter, eight-lane pool that can be divided into two 25-yard courses by a removable flow-through bulkhead.
Bulkeads were a new innovation in 1969, when the pool was built, and they remain a standard feature in pools today. Bulkheads allow facility owners to separate the pool into sections for short and long courses as well as practice areas, and they also are one of the keys to creating fast water.
Ask an Expert
Steve Crocker knows the secret to “fast water.” In fact, he’s the creator of it. As studio director for aquatics architects Counsilman-Hunsaker, a pioneering firm in the aquatics design field that emerged in the 1970s, Crocker leads a team focusing on projects in the midwestern region of the United States. In addition to being a former world record holder in the 50-meter freestyle, NCAA All American, swimming coach and owner of North Coast Aquatics in California and swimming coach at Western Kentucky University, Crocker is also a licensed mechanical engineer with a unique understanding of how to create pools for performance.
In a recent article for Aquatics International Magazine, Crocker explains the mystical concept of fast water. “… you'll often hear swimmers, coaches and announcers praising the pool as if it had a magical part in the record-breaking performances. The truth is, it’s not magic at all, but rather science, very complicated science. In the pool, that means cool, clear, turbulent-free water equipped with long, stable, slip-resistant starting blocks and properly tensioned, wave-quelling lane dividers. Outside, it means chloramine-free air, a well-lit environment coupled with the energy that comes from several hundred screaming fans, coaches and teammates.”
Crocker lists five elements that define fast pool design—a smooth surface, turbulence-free subsurface, predictability (race precision), and physiological factors such as air quality and temperature—all of which offer excellent guidelines for swimming/diving event planning. Of course, when making the critical decision of location for a swimming and diving event, fast water might not be your first consideration; accommodating more than 3,000 athletes, plus their adoring fans and families might be the most crucial criteria, as in the case of the Southwest Ohio High School Swimming and Diving Classic. But together, all of these factors offer a solid starting block for swimming and diving events that meet every mark.
An Olympic Multiplex
When Birmingham, Alabama, decided to build its new Crossplex facility, they took a unique approach, combining an indoor track and field venue with a state-of-the-art natatorium. Davis Architects of Birmingham designed the natatorium with help from Counsilman-Hunsaker, who designed the pool and all associated equipment. The facility offers ten 50-meter lanes, ten 25-meter lanes and twenty 25-yard lanes, as well as seating for 1,100 and room for 200 coaches and athletes. Two one-meter and two three-meter springboards are mounted on concrete pedestals for diving competitions, and the pool is also designed to handle water polo (FINA Certified) and synchronized swimming events. Two LED boards with timing and touch pads deliver precise and visible timekeeping, along with four digital pace clocks.
The Crossplex employs all of Crocker’s elements of a fast facility, including a bulkhead for multiple configurations and turbulence elimination; a regenerative media water filtration; ultraviolet water treatment; and an extra deep concrete/tile gutter system.
“The regenerative media filter has a low backwash rate, saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each year,” explains Crocker. “UV treatment of water reduces combined chlorine, which results in improved air quality. Athletes, coaches, spectators all benefit. Better breathing equals faster swimming.”
The Crossplex is Birmingham’s first aquatics facility, but with such a strong start, there’s little doubt that the city will soon be hosting some of the sport’s major competitions.
“We’re very excited about what we’ve accomplished in just the first year, hosting a number of local and regional events,” says David Galbaugh, director of sports sales and marketing, Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The next year will be a big one for sure. Birmingham is already slated to host the NCAA Division 2 Winter Championships, and the Crossplex will house the swimming and diving portion of the event.
The University of Florida is home to a strong swimming and diving program as well as an exceptional facility.
“The Stephen C. O’Connell Center is a multipurpose facility, so it offers a lot of options for events, and since it’s part of the University of Florida, you know the staff has a lot of sports event experience,” says Joleen Cacciatore, associate executive director, Gainesville Sports Commission.
The pool is a 50-meter Olympic-sized pool, said to be one of the world’s fastest. Configurations include two 25-yard courses (with or without a warm-up area) or a full 50-meter course, configurations created by two sliding bulkheads. For diving, the O’Connell Center has two one-meter and two three-meter diving boards as well as two diving platforms, one five meters and the other ten.
A sharp depth decrease adds to the pool’s speed, as it slopes rapidly from five to eighteen feet, and an extensive gutter system absorbs any rebound waves from the sides.
“Athletes really enjoy fast swimming lanes and the hot tubs for divers and the media and judges love the extra facility space the O’Connell Center provides like the private offices and large hospitality area,” says Cacciatore.
The Perseverance of a Parent
The Capital Federal Natatorium in Topeka, Kansas, is a standout facility for its 1,000-person seating, 50-meter pool and moveable bulkhead, making it ideal for large short-course swimming events. Its recent additions, including a four-lane warm-up and cool-down pool on the north end and a post-event “crash area” for athletes on the south end, are also unique. But the thing that’s most remarkable about the Capital Federal Natatorium is that it exists because of the perseverance of one parent.
“We were fortunate enough to have a person in town who took a great interest in swimming. His daughter was a competitive swimmer, and he wanted to be sure she had an outstanding place to train and compete,” says Jennifer Muse, sports marketing manager, Visit Topeka.
During the recent renovations, the Capital Federal Natatorium received two new restrooms/changing rooms between the crash area and the four-lane pool, a separate competitive scoring/timing room and a new ultraviolent filtration system, putting this high school facility on part with many college-level natatoriums across the country.
Anyone can say their water is fast, but when swimming’s stars set records at a particular pool, it can definitely start to get a reputation. In Fairfax County, Virgina, the Jim McKay Natatorium2 is one of those facilities worth talking about.
“Jim McKay Natatorium at George Mason University is known as one of the fastest pools on the East Coast,” says Eric Kulczycky, national sales manager, sports marketing, Visit Fairfax. “Swimmers like Michael Phelps and Tom Dolan have records at that facility, so you know it’s fast.”
Home to George Mason’s swimming and diving teams, the Jim McKay Natatorium features a 50-meter Olympic pool, 25-yard exercise pool, diving well, sauna, spa and a fully equipped 3,500-square-foot fitness gallery. The facility’s high-precision timekeeping and UV filtration system are both in line with Crocker’s design specs, along with the seven-to-13.5-depth pool, which is responsible in part for this speedy pool’s impressive record roster: 71 total set by participants at the Colonial Athletic Association Championships over the past eight years.
Swimming Under the Sun
Crocker says that some coaches believe in holding swim and dive meets only indoors in order to reduce the chance of any environmental variation, but some event owners clearly don’t mind … or can’t resist the beautiful Mesa, Arizona, weather.
“We have 10 competitive pools in Mesa, which is kind of unheard-of for most communities,” says Josh Todd, sports sales manager, Visit Mesa. “Our two Olympic-style aquatics centers are the Kino Aquatic Center3 and Skyline Aquatic Center, both with 75-meter pools, and they’re very large facilities. Kino is about 90,000 square feet and Skyline is more than 120,000 square feet.”
The facilities host a range of events, including 2011 US Masters Short Course Nationals and 2012 USA Synchronized Swimming US Nationals and Citrus Classic Winter Training, which brings 15-plus colleges to the area for winter season practice. And this year, Mesa will set the stage to host the USA Swimming Mesa Grand Prix, part of the Grand Prix series, which will visit Mesa 2013-2016.
Swimming in Holland
In Holland, Michigan, there’s an aquatics center that is home to eight swim teams, along with a range of events, including the Michigan State High School Finals and the NCAA Div. 3 Finals. Averaging 400-450 athletes per meet, these events take full advantage of the Holland Aquatic’s Center’s 21-lane competitive pool with moveable bulkhead and four diving boards, including two three-meter boards.
And while the Holland Aquatics Center4 features many state-of-the-art design features, its most unique feature might be its training system: the Aveda System, which offers seven different monitors on the swimmers, measuring stroke count, tempo, stroke length, etc.
Sometimes, the heart wants what it wants, and in Long Island, there’s a facility that inspires exactly that feeling.
“It really is a beautiful facility,” says Jennifer Rothman, sales manager, Long Island CVB and Sports Commission. “One woman recently came up to me with an article about Nassau County Aquatics Center in her hand and said, ‘I want my event to be in this facility.’ It’s just that impressive.”
It helps, of course, that Nassau County Aquatics Center5 is also one of the nation’s top 10 aquatics facilities, which means it’s not just beautiful: it’s fast.
1“Keating Natatorium is a Jewel of a Pool. Cincinnati Enquirer. Originally published July 24, 2010. Accessed Jan 13, 2012 at http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20100724/SPT0301/7250348/Keating-Natatorium-jewel-pool.
2A Counsilman-Hunsaker facility.
3A Counsilman-Hunsaker facility.
4A Counsilman-Hunsaker facility.
5A Counsilman-Hunsaker facility.