Feature Article - January 2008
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Aquatic Programming Gets Back to Basics

By Emily Tipping

Meet to Compete

If you want your pool to host meets and competitions, there are a number of things to consider up front, before the pool is built, according to Mendioroz. First on the list is figuring out exactly what you want to do, and then making sure you don't overlook anything, he said.

"For example, water polo is becoming extremely popular," Mendioroz said. "We're seeing it a lot at the high school level, and even women's teams at the high school level. So when you design a new pool, for years the standard was 25 yards by 25 meters at the high school level because you could get swimming, diving and water polo in there."

Now, though, Mendioroz said the standards are changing for water polo. Serious water polo players, he explained, are now looking down their noses at the fixed cage layout many pools feature because the fixed cage provides "a convenient place for the goalie to place a foot and push off the wall."

The new standard is floating cage layouts, which put all of the players on an even footing, as goalies have to tread water like everyone else.

"The challenge with that is you need another 5 meters on top of your 25 meters to make that work," Mendioroz said. "So you need at least 80 feet of all deep water to put in a floating cage layout for high school water polo. But when you've got all deep water, that's not an easy pool to teach and train kids to swim in. So we're seeing pools 30 to 35 meters long because that allows for your transition from that 3 foot 6 inch water depth you need to teach kids to swim."

The point is that when you're planning your facility, you need to think ahead, Mendioroz said. "You have to take into consideration what might happen in the future, because this is a significant investment in infrastructure," he added.

Take diving, for instance. "Designing a pool for diving is kind of like being pregnant—you either are or you aren't," Mendioroz explained. "Trying to make a pool deeper is very difficult. If there's even a remote possibility that you might do diving down the road, design the pool for it and include the anchors for the boards."

From a practical standpoint, Mendioroz said it's difficult to get all three sports—swimming, diving and water polo—into one pool. "There's almost always some compromise," Mendioroz said. "If you're going to move anything out of the one pool, the easiest is usually the diving. Swimming and water polo can coexist easily, but diving complicates matters because the diving boards are big bulky pieces of equipment, and you can't put starting boards there. So if the money is available, we generally recommend that diving be a separate pool altogether if there's space and budget."

Mendioroz said they do see a lot of facilities using moveable bulkheads in order to cordon off areas. "If you're trying to practice multiple sports in the same pool, moveable bulkheads can help because it allows you to separate the swimming and water polo folks, for example. They help in officiating, segregating sports during practice time. The only challenge is just moving it around, because it takes some manpower," he said.

For public facilities, ask around to find out what your peers who have recently built facilities would have done differently, Mendioroz suggests. A mix of uses is better than straight competition for just about any facility, as you'll get more cost recovery on the facility. A 50-meter pool, while easier to design, Mendioroz explained, only brings about 60 to 70 percent cost recovery, tops. A 50-50 split between competition and recreational use will pay off in the end. "Maybe 2 percent to 5 percent of people will participate in competitive swimming. The other 95 percent all have dollars in their little fists waiting to spend them," Mendioroz said.

Even at the college level, when facilities are being financed by student fees, it makes sense to include recreational uses in the design. Mendioroz cited a project at San Diego State University. Two student referenda to increase fees for a competitive aquatics facility failed by a 2-to-1 margin. It was when the design team added a recreational pool that the students changed their mind and passed the fee increase, also by a 2-to-1 margin. "Students have taken to it so much that traffic patterns on campus have changed, he explained. "In the old facility, you rarely saw kids at the pool. Now there's a lot of fun things for the kids to do in addition to the 50-meter pool. They flock to this place."

Once you've got the facility designed and suitable for competition, your worries are not over. Now you have to worry about the logistics of meet management, which Feris said is a big challenge.

"The largest meet we host here on an annual basis is through Texas's summer league program, run by the Texas Amateur Athletic Federation, or TAFF," Feris said. "It's state-run and they have just about every parks and recreation department or city that wants to have a team. The Region 4 Summer League Championships runs over three days with between 1,600 and 1,700 athletes coming in. Mind you, our seating area can comfortably seat about 735 people, but the logistics of running such a large meet and the staging over three days of different age groups coming in and swimming is a challenge."

The big challenge: staffing. "Typically we'll run two swim meets simultaneously," Feris said. "That requires two crews to run the computers, the consoles. It requires a head official at either end of the pool, multiple stroke and turn judges and twice as many timers as you would ordinarily use. …Logistically, the greatest challenge is finding well-trained, capable people. And when you're running a meet that might encompass a day and a half or two days, you might have somebody who can work Saturday, but not Friday evening, so you really need to double your efforts and find twice as many qualified people."