May 29, 2007
BY MIKE SZOSTAK, Providence Journal Sports Writer
PROVIDENCE -- Christmas arrived early for Peter Brown and Jason Gall and their aquatics athletes when the Corporation of Brown University on Friday authorized the design and construction of a new $35-million swimming and diving facility on the site of the closed Smith Swim Center.
A bonus gift was a pledge to build a temporary training pool for their use until the new building opens in summer 2010. Upon receipt of the necessary municipal permits, the university will construct the temporary pool in the parking lot behind the Olney Margolies Athletic Center.
Both sites are in the Erickson Athletic Complex on Hope Street.
Brown, the head coach of men's swimming and diving, was hoping for as much when reached at his office Thursday afternoon. He knows the approximate cost of a first-rate pool yet was optimistic Brown would find a way to meet the needs of its students and athletes.
"I trust the university is going to do everything it can. It may not be as soon as we'd like, but you have to trust them. If not, your outlook becomes jaded. I know the people I work for, and I have a tremendous amount of trust in them," he said.
Russell C. Carey, interim vice president for campus life and student services, said yesterday that the vote for a new swim center and a temporary pool confirmed "widespread support for our student athletes and athletics program."
Carey said the temporary pool should take seven to nine months to build. Assuming minimal delays, it could be completed as early as Jan. 1. The men's water polo team will have to train off campus next fall, as the swimming and diving teams and women's water polo team had to do last winter and this spring.
University officials, sensitive to the demands on the time of student-athletes, want to minimize the necessity for off-campus training, which is why they advocated for a temporary pool.
"Students were very articulate through the process of how negative training off campus would be. It was having an impact on their course selection," Carey said.
Initial reaction to Friday's announcement was overwhelmingly positive. "We received a lot of nice notes overnight from parents and students," Carey said.
Carey said money for the project probably will not come from the current $1.4-billion capital campaign and that a financing plan will be developed this summer and presented to the corporation at its fall meeting.
Carey and Michael Goldberger, director of athletics, announced on April 27 that the Smith Swim Center, closed since Feb. 13, would not reopen because timbers supporting the roof were rotting and beyond repair.
The women's water polo team had scrambled to find practice and competition pools. The Rhode Island Interscholastic League had to find a new site for its championships. Brown athletes who used the pool for cross-training and members of the community who swam for recreation were out of luck. Ditto for the Brown students who used the squash courts there.
"It's a big part of the community. We served 14 different user groups, and we probably missed somebody," Peter Brown, the swim coach, said. The Smith Swim Center was among the best in the nation when it opened in 1973. It featured a 50-meter long course, a 25-yard short course, spectator area, locker rooms and squash courts. Brown hosted major competitions at many levels.
The roof, which suggests a circus tent, became a landmark on the East Side. Renovations included remodeling the eight narrow squash courts into six international courts and, last summer, new locker rooms. During that project a worker with a blowtorch accidentally ignited one of the wooden beams that support the roof. There was no major damage, but officials wondered why the fire spread faster than it should have. Upon inspection they discovered that the beam was becoming hollow because of rot. Thirty-five years of humid air had taken a toll.
Workers reinforced the beam, and the swim center opened for the fall semester. Two teams of engineers examined the roof and filed a report in November. The building was closed Dec. 20 after the architect expressed concern about the roof. Further inspection ensued, repairs were made, and the facility reopened on Jan. 17.
Four weeks later, Feb. 13, Brown closed the pool again. Dan Tully, the original builder, had noticed the beams were out of alignment and there was deflection in the roof panels. Repair options were expensive, and on April 27 came the announcement that the Smith Swim Center would not reopen.
The swim teams had hosted their final dual meet on Feb. 3 and were training for the Eastern Championships when the pool closed, for good as it turned out. The women's water polo team had just begun its season by hosting and winning the Ivy League Tournament Feb. 10-11. Gall and his water polo players then became aquatic nomads.
"What you need to run a program properly is a big (25 meters), deep pool with no shallow end," he said. "There are quite a few pools in the area but most are not built with water polo in mind."
The Bears used pools at Seekonk High School and Providence College but mostly at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., a 35-minute drive from Providence.
"All three schools were very accommodating," Gall said, but hitting the road to train made for long days for the athletes.
Despite the lack of a home pool, the team finished with a 23-10 record and was ranked as high as No. 18 in the nation.
"Jason and his team did an amazing job under incredible circumstances. The wear and tear on the kids was significant. That's the biggest issue we're dealing with," Goldberger said in an interview earlier this month.
The swimmers finished their season training at Seekonk High School, where freshman Ray Grant's father, Ray, is the coach and director of athletics there.
"He has been wonderful. He's a swim coach. He knows what we were up against," Brown said.
During this time, everybody connected with Brown aquatics wondered about the future. There was speculation about tearing down the roof and walls of the Smith Swim Center and putting a bubble over the pool, but that remedy would have been like applying a Band-Aid to an open wound. The pool is not deep enough by today's standards to use for major meets. Deep water means less turbulence, which means faster times. Times in the Brown pool can be a second slower than in a newer pool with deeper water. Swimming pool technology "took a big jump from the mid-'80s forward. The whole pool construction industry really took off," Brown said.
Goldberger said there was no discussion of doing away with aquatics to save money.
"I think there is a real appreciation by the senior administration of the value of athletics to the university," he said. "We want a building we can be proud of, and we want to do it well. We want to promote a healthy lifestyle for the Brown community."
The new pool will be designed and built in conjunction with the Nelson Fitness Center being planned for the Erickson Athletic Complex.
"We want a building we can be proud of, and we want to do it well."