The Life Aquatic

Published on Sunday, 22 June 2014 23:17 - Written by Emily Guevara,

Three of the four walls in the Tyler ISD Aquatics Center are covered with banners showcasing the swimming program’s history of excellence.

The banners, which came from district team titles, date back to 1987 for the Robert E. Lee High School girls and boys swim teams. The boys have won at least 20 years worth of district titles and the girls have won at least 22.

The team has 13 top 8 performances at regionals with the girls winning the title in 2008-09 and the boys in 2009-10 and 2010-11, according to district data from 2002-12.

They’ve had All-Region athletes, regional swimmers of the year awards, regional coach of the year awards and swimmers named to the All-State team.

But as the district’s swimmers have steadily maintained their high-level performances, the facility they train in has not.

Since the mid-1980s, Tyler ISD swimmers have trained in a six lane, 25-yard facility near the intersection of New Copeland Road and Shiloh Road.

Although nice when it was originally built by a swimming family that wanted a place for their kids to practice, it was not designed to handle the heavy use that comes from competitive swim teams, community swim lessons and lap swimmers.

“The pool is on its last legs; it’s literally on its death bed,” TISD Aquatics Coordinator and Head Swim Coach Matt Franks said. “If it was a person, it would be (in) hospice.”

That’s why the district is proposing a solution. TISD Superintendent Gary Mooring is recommending the school board commit $2 million for construction of a natatorium contingent on receipt of donated funds to meet the full project cost.

The board is scheduled to vote on the issue during a 7 p.m. meeting today in the Dr. Jack L. Davidson Conference Center in the Jim Plyler Instructional Complex, 807 W. Glenwood Blvd.

During a June 9 board workshop, Mooring said it would cost at least $4 million to build a 25-meter pool and at least $7 million to build a 50-meter pool.

Franks is confident they can raise the funds. He said people are aware that the swim program has been one of the most successful programs in the district for the past 30 years.

“There have been many people that want to get involved so long as we’re focused on the entire community,” he said.


Facing Limitations

The overarching issue with the TISD pool is that it was designed and built more like an oversized apartment pool or backyard pool than a commercial pool.

Because of that, most of systems weren’t designed to handle the use, which is on average between 150 and 200 people each day.

This includes TISD swimmers, the Tyler club team, and people in community swim lessons. Those swimmers involved in the club team and swim lessons pay, which brings in some revenue.

For competition purposes, the pool must meet certain standards set by the various governing bodies, such as the University Interscholastic League for public school-related competitions, NCAA for college, USA Swimming and FINA, the international governing body for swimming and other water sports.

The TISD pool is 4 feet on each end and 6 feet in the middle, not regulation depth for competition standards.

Although the existing circulation and filtration systems work well enough to keep the water clean, they aren’t equipped to efficiently handle the number of swimmers, Franks said.

If something breaks down, there are few, if any, redundancies built in so the potential for a multi-day pool shutdown while problems get fixed is high.

The pool has two small heater units that are similar to those used for backyard pools.

For competitive swimmers, the water temperature should remain between 79 degrees and 82 degrees, Franks said.

For almost one month this past season, the pool temperature measured in the mid-70s.

“It’s constantly a juggling act, and we’re always just trying to keep up,” he said.


Need for a Natatorium

One of the main reasons Franks would like to see the district get a new facility is so TISD swimmers can have home meets.

At the existing facility, there is inadequate parking, minimal spectator space (one small set of usable bleachers), inadequate pool depth and improper pool dimensions to accommodate wall touch pads for calculating finish times. In addition, the starting blocks are falling apart.

The inability to have home meets hurts team morale and the visibility of the program, Franks said.

Because few local students and residents get to watch the students compete, the majority of the students in the district don’t even know TISD has a swimming program, Franks said. The last six of his graduating classes had no home meet ever in their competitive TISD career and no senior night, he said.

It’s already challenging to recruit athletes for individual sports. Add to that the lack of visibility, and it compounds the problem.


Potential Options

There are two proposals on the table. Working with the district Franks said they put together plans for a facility that would meet the needs of the competitive swimming program and allow for expansion. The size of that facility would depend upon the money raised.

Franks said the pool would be designed with a commercial mindset from the start. It would be able to accommodate a variety of aquatic programs and potentially generate revenue for the city if it served as a host site for competitions and brought in out-of-town guests.

The idea would be for the competitive swim program to expand to other schools, likely John Tyler and all six middle schools, if a new pool was built. Currently the only TISD swim teams are from Lee, Hubbard and Moore.

“It would greatly expand the ability to reach everyone in the community,” Franks said of a new facility, adding that it’s not just about racing, but serving the best interests of the district’s students.

What he envisions is a district-wide water safety initiative targeting first- through third-graders. The idea is to educate them about water safety, introduce them to swimming and potentially spark a lifelong interest in the sport.

Contrary to what some might think, a new swimming facility is not just “for rich, white kids,” he said.

“This is something for everybody in the district,” he said. “I won’t rest until we get a program where we have kids in first and third grade. That’s something we can get done. That’s something we can get universal support for district-wide.”