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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Passing Lanes: Swim coach John Bitter wants to see a world-class pool at the Santa Clara Swim Center.

Drowning in Neglect

Olympic glory fades as Santa Clara, once the national capital of competitive swimming, ignores its once great pools

By Erin Sherbert

WHILE the sports buzz in Santa Clara has been about when the 49ers will arrive, the city's oldest and most famous athletic gem is being neglected.

The 41-year-old George Haines International Swim Center is a world-famous sports complex where numerous Olympic swimmers, including Olympic hero Mark Spitz, got their start. The center is home to the Santa Clara Aquamaids, a club that has produced more than half of all U.S. Olympic Team synchronized swimmers.

On the surface, the Swim Center's pools look sturdy and grand. Only die-hard competitive swimmers know how the old pool can slow them down. Time has deteriorated the venerable facility. The average lifespan of a competitive pool is 25 to 30 years, so the Swim Center's upgrade is at least 10 years overdue. The gutter and filter systems are becoming decrepit, and the pool isn't deep enough to hold some of the country's most notable swim meets.

Santa Clara is well aware of what it needs to do to preserve its world-class reputation: build four new Olympic-quality pools, including two competition pools and a diving well.

The city estimates it will cost $50 million at the very least to make the Swim Center what it once was—the envy of swimmers around the world.

The expense of the project is what has kept it on the back burner year after year. The city's capital budget is roughly $92 million, and other projects including a senior center have taken precedence. The last time the city considered plans to overhaul the Swim Center was a few years ago when San Francisco was looking to place a bid to host the 2016 Olympics. Those plans fell through when the city decided it just couldn't afford to finance a new swim center of world-class caliber.

John Bitter, head coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club, says the city could keep its elite status in the swimming world and continue to attract some of the top swim meets in the nation, but needs the new pools. Bitter's club has more than 400 Santa Clara kids enrolled in its competitive program.

"This club has played such a prominent role in the history of this sport in the country," Bitter said. "Now, if we had the right facility, there is no telling what we could do here."

Fast in the Past

When swim coach George Haines founded the Swim Club in 1951, his 13 swimmers practiced in local swimming holes, and at Stevens Creek Reservoir, where they calculated that the distance between the face of the damn and a certain tree was 500 yards.

Haines, who later became an Olympic swim coach, was producing Olympic swimmers by the early 1960s. In 1968, 17 Santa Clara swimmers made it to the Olympics. At that time, the head of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, who was close friends with Haines, saw the need for a competitive swim center in town. But the concept met with great controversy; the community didn't see the need for an Olympic-style swim center, especially one that was being proposed on land rich with prune orchards.

Meanwhile, the city was quickly earning a reputation in the swimming world. Haines was able to convince the council that Santa Clara needed a complex where it could train Olympic swimmers and host big swim meets.

In 1967, the City Council decided to use cigarette tax money and bonds to built the Swim Center. It was the first of its kind in the state—a three-pool complex that quickly became the blueprint for other swim centers across the country.

P.H. Mullen, who wrote the book Gold in the Water about the 2000 Olympics, says the heart of American swimming was inside Santa Clara's nine-lane, 50-meter pool.

"In the swimming world, you know the name Santa Clara," says George Friedenbach, acting director of Santa Clara's parks and recreation.

After the center was built, Santa Clara served as the training ground for some of the top swimmers in the country. Under Haines, the Santa Clara Swim Club was known as the world's best swim club with the world's best swim coach.

Donna de Varona, the youngest member of the Olympics team in 1960, and Mark Spitz, who holds the record for the most gold medals won in a single Olympic Games (in 1972) are among Santa Clara's prominent alum. More recently, the Swim Club's Tom Wilkins won a bronze medal in 2000. Right now, Bitter is currently training eight swimmers for the Olympic trials.

The center was renamed the George Haines International Swim Center in 2000. Haines died in 2006.

"There is a mystique about it because it was one of the first in the country and there is so much legacy," said Bitter. "Because of the people who swam here, there is so much nostalgia."

Forecast: Wet And Spendy

But Santa Clara can't live on these memories. It's time for the city to invest in replacing the pools, Bitter says.

The plan is to build two new 50-meter competitive pools. It also includes building a new training pool and a deeper diving well, as well as a training facility with weight rooms.

The council has shown support for the project. But at a recent hearing, City Manager Jennifer Sparacino suggested deferring the project for another year while the city comes up with some creative financing strategies.

Meanwhile, the city might consider spending another $400,000 to continue the designs of the project. The council will discuss this on June 10 as a part of the city's overall budget hearing.

"There other swim centers in Colorado that are newer and professionally fit for Olympians," says City Councilman Dominic Caserta. "We need to make it competitive and make sure we keep that legacy alive in Santa Clara."

The Swim Club is doing its part to get the momentum going. Members of the private group have started raising money to help pay for the project—so far they have collected $50,000 through fundraisers.

It's a small start to what Bitter wants—a cutting edge competitive swim center where he can start producing Olympic medalists again.

"It's something that ties 1960 to 2008," he says. "It's been a constant. If we lose that, it will be tragic. You will be losing a lot of history, and that's my one big fear."

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