Popularity of swimming spills over facilities' capacity

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

Lafayette freshman swimmer Chris Kostelni prepares for the next day of school each night, taking care of anything he can ahead of time to allow for a seamless transition from his bedroom to the pool for pre-dawn practice.

Kostelni rises at 4:40 a.m. for Lafayette's 5 a.m. workouts at the Eastern State Hospital pool, known in cooler months as the "Bubble," because if its dome enclosure. Often, Williamsburg Aquatic Club practice awaits Kostelni in the afternoon.

"It's not the best of things," Kostelni said, "but you put up with what you're dealt."

Kostelni has been a standout for Lafayette in his freshman season and took second last week in the Group 4A East Region 200 freestyle and fifth in the 500 free. The Rams will compete Saturday in the 4A championships in Richmond along with Jamestown.

Warhill competed Friday in the 3A championships, Bruton will participate Sunday in the 2As and Walsingham Academy's Virginia Independent School Athletic Association championship meet concludes Saturday.

Local year-round youth swimmers share similar stories with Kostelni. Each of the four public high school teams along with Walsingham must practice, creating widespread concern among those involved with youth swimming. Each team competes for practice space, even as the Williamsburg area lacks a 50-meter, Olympic-sized pool.

The refrain is "Too many teams, not enough lanes."

Limited availability

In addition to the four public high schools, Williamsburg Christian Academy just wrapped up the first year of its junior varsity program, which is expected to expand.

There are now two locally based club programs, WAC and 757swim. The York-based Coast Guard Blue Dolphins club team also draws from Williamsburg and its youth swimmers use Williamsburg facilities.

Jamestown, Warhill, Walsingham, and WCA each use the James City County Recreation Center for practice while Bruton swims at the R.F. Wilkinson Family YMCA. Each houses 25-yard pools.

None of the primary local swimming facilities, including the College of William and Mary's, are suitable to host competitive meets due to either pool depth or lack of deck space. The recreation center pool is not deep enough for swimmers to practice off a starting block and dive into the water per USA Swimming guidelines, which means swimmers must start their swims in the water, off the wall.

On the Peninsula, the only options for hosting meets are at Fort Eustis Aquatic Center and Midtown Aquatic Center in Newport News or at Hampton University.

Jamestown, which shares JCC Rec Center time slots for practice with Warhill, is a top contender for both boys and girls team titles Saturday and the Eagles' girls have won back-to-back team titles.

Ruth Larson served on the WJCC School Board for 10 years prior to her new role on the Board of Supervisors. Larson's daughter, Abby, is a sophomore at Jamestown and one of the Eagles top swimmers.

"I'm very appreciative that the kids have the rec center, but the kids can't dive in there," Ruth Larson said. "It's not deep enough. They're not getting a true practice experience."

Abby Larson also competes year-round for 757swim, which swims in the Villages of Westminster outdoor pool that is heated during winter.

Jeff Sullivan handles publicity for both 757swim and Williamsburg Christian in addition to being a swim parent.

"You step out of that pool and the wind is snapping through that place, it probably cuts through them like a knife," Sullivan said. "But to a word, they will tell you, 'No big deal.'"

Sullivan said some of the youth swimmers he's associated with actually seem to prefer outdoors even in the winter as opposed to humid conditions indoors although the clear goal remains for 757swim to move indoors.

Potential solutions

Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex is exploring whether to build a 12,600-square-foot aquatics center on its campus with the proposed installation of an eight-lane pool and smaller therapy pool. WISC's application to the county for the project was submitted Jan. 25.

It is unclear whether the proposed facility would feature a 50-meter pool or be capable of hosting major events. WISC President Chris Haywood wrote in an email to the Gazette that WISC is "exploring many options."

"We would obviously want to cater to the community," WISC General Manager Chris Scrofani said. "We would want to see what groups we could attract for sure."

One of those would be 757swim, which has developed an "informal" relationship with WISC in regards to planning for the project, according to Sullivan.

"I think probably every team in town would want to be (using the facility) to be honest with you," Sullivan said. "Who doesn't want to be in a new facility with everything that you need?"

Dollars involved

Meanwhile, Supervisor Kevin Onizuk said there has been an initial organizational meeting about a task force designed to assess the feasibility of an aquatics center, a multi-sport fieldhouse or outdoor recreational possibilities. The task force includes James City County, the City of Williamsburg and York County officials in conjunction with the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance.

"We're not quite sure we can afford either one of them right now and we're not quite sure that that's the best use of our tourism dollars," Onizuk said. "Maybe it's more outdoor fields. Maybe it's investing in culinary tourism. At this point, we're in the very preliminary stages. It's something we've done a study on. It's something we'd like to have. We're just not quite sure it's feasible in the near future."

A recreational feasibility study in 2014 showed that an aquatics center featuring a 50-meter competition pool, a 25-yard warm-up pool and seating for 1,500 would cost more to build and operate and generate less in revenues and visitation than an 84,462-square-foot facility housing six basketball courts, 12 volleyball courts and seating for 1,200. The consultant's report estimates the multi-use fieldhouse would cost $12.4 million to build.

In the report, Sports Facilities Advisory anticipated a 58,000-square-foot aquatics center would cost $17.7 million to build.

Lafayette coach Harold Baker, who founded WAC in 1979, said his club saw exponential growth when it moved from the basement in William and Mary's Blow Gym to the rec center in the late 1980s. He said the club received an award for being the fastest-growing club in the country, tripling its size.

"It would improve everything," Baker said of a 50-meter pool facility. "I think it would draw a lot more kids in. When you have something like that, people get excited."

Onizuk also said expansion to the JCC Rec Center, while much smaller in scale, is also a possibility and that a possible major multipurpose aquatics facility being mulled in Hampton could also have an impact on a potential facility in Williamsburg.

WJCC School Board Chair Jim Kelly said the Board recognizes need for a new aquatics facility and expressed there is some long-term concern on keeping swimming programs in the high schools if they lost access to the current facilities in use or weren't granted access to any new facilities.

"There is some concern," Kelly said of potential elimination of high school swimming, "but I wouldn't necessarily say it's a reality yet."

Neighboring competition

Hampton officials have not committed to building an aquatics facility, although city planners believe such a structure could be built near Hampton Coliseum.

"I'm not sure we would want to duplicate that and have the competition of a very similar venue," Onizuk said. "… That's probably not our best use of funds and there's certainly other things we can do including the fieldhouse; including different types of sports, more outdoor sports, more soccer. There's a lot of different options that we have that would make more sense.

"If Hampton were to go through with that and build a significant facility, it would probably be more in our best interest to focus on something a little smaller for the use of just our citizens, like something around a rec center – not an aquatic center built for tourism."

The local facilities' lack of proper water depth has also meant the elimination of diving, which is still contested in the Virginia High School League. That puts each of the schools at a disadvantage when going head-to-head with schools from more heavily-populated that areas that still have diving. It could be the difference in a team state title or not as has been the case for Lafayette's boys in recent years.

Collegiate factors

William and Mary eliminated diving in 2011 and the college's primary pool is eight lanes and 25 yards while there's also limited pool space in Adair Hall. Adair houses the Kinesiology and Health Sciences department and only features a 1-meter diving board, so the team would have to travel to Newport News for 3-meter diving.

Ninth-year Tribe coach Matt Crispino said it doesn't necessarily hurt recruiting because he can carry more swimmers on his roster, but he wants to see diving return to William and Mary, which won the Colonial Athletic Association men's swimming and diving championship last year.

That could happen if the school raises $15 million to $20 million for an aquatics facility, which it proposed in an athletics master plan announced last year.

Onizuk said William and Mary would be a welcomed partner in moving forward with an aquatics facility in the area.

"Any discussions involving facilities over the years we've always tried to be a part of from the standpoint of knowing what was going on and seeing if there was any role for us," William and Mary Athletics Director Terry Driscoll said.

While not ruling out a public-private partnership, Driscoll said William and Mary is moving forward with its own on-campus plans, which could still benefit local teams. But the college would have the primary use of the facility.

"Our teams have needs and a lot of it revolves around the fact they are college students," Driscoll said. "So there's only a certain amount of hours in the day that are available for them to work out. One of the benefits of having the primary use of the facility is it allows you to ensure that our student-athletes can go to school and they can also practice together as a team."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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