Things could hardly be better for swimmers in the greater Washington region. Membership numbers rise year after year. Local clubs churn out talent and grow in national esteem. The region’s thriving summer leagues are considered a national model.
But there is one problem.
The area is running out of water.
This is not news to all of the swim parents who stumble out of bed at 3:45 a.m. to shuttle their burgeoning stars to practices at 4:30 a.m., the only time lanes are available for many club teams. It is not news to coaches who scratch and claw for practice time at facilities that are decreasing lane rentals or charging higher rates.
And it is not news to age-group swimmers so accustomed to sharing lanes with six or seven others during workouts that, when they get to meets, they are all but incapable of following the black line in the middle of each lane. They swim, as they do during jam-packed practice sessions, down the right side and back on the left.
It is, in effect, swimming in a circle – precisely the route John Ertter, Potomac Valley Swimming’s executive director often feels he is going when he seeks solutions to the strange water shortage in the District’s suburbs, a region with dozens and dozens of pools.
“The problem is driven simply by our success,” Ertter said. “We probably have more pools in the greater Washington area than any part of the country. But because of the numbers, it still creates an imbalance . . . and it’s going to get worse if nothing is done.”
Building new pools is not easy. Some problems are obvious: a lack of available real estate and premium land prices in one of the most expensive areas in the nation. There is this, too: 50-meter pools designed for only for competition bleed money regardless of where they are located, experts say, because they are so expensive to run.
Other apparent remedies, such as putting bubbles over the region’s myriad existing outdoor pools, haven’t caught on, in some cases because of neighborhood resistance.
The situation is dire, according to Mick Nelson, USA Swimming’s club facilities development director who gives an annual seminar on building pools.
“You,” Nelson said about the greater Washington swimming community, “are disproportionately in peril.”
Back in 2001, swim coaches Christian Doud and Dan Jacobs thought it would be a great idea to form their own swim club after stints at York Swim Club in Chantilly. They expected it might be challenging to get swimmers, but the problem was where to put them.
With virtually no afternoon lanes available for rent throughout Fairfax County, Doud and Jacobs snatched up pre-dawn training times, often at too-small health and fitness centers with inadequate ventilation. Instead of after-school practices, the Arlington-based Machine Aquatics swimmers would train primarily before school.
“People like afternoon practices because kids stay healthy and get enough sleep,” Doud said. “Our team is actually the complete opposite. We have had to wedge in space wherever we can.”
Machine Aquatics is not alone. Dale Lewis hit an immediate roadblock when he opened Best Times Swim Club in Wheaton nearly three years ago: he found no lanes available in Montgomery County. Virtually all of the available pool time was reserved for the huge Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club, which has 1,800 members and first dibs on the county’s public facilities.
So he secured three lanes at the District’s Takoma Aquatic Center, capping his membership at 60 (he now has four lanes and 80).
“I have no options,” Lewis said. “If they decided they don’t want to rent me lanes, I’m out of business.”
Even clubs that have been around for years, such as the 31-year-old Curl-Burke Swim Club, which has 15 locations around the region, struggle to accommodate increasing legions of swimmers.
“It’s always an adventure,” said Pete Morgan, a Curl-Burke coach. “To try to put your business plan based on somebody else’s availability is no easy thing . . . Since 1978, we’ve seen the rates of leases go up from $4 per lane per hour to as much as $30 per lane per hour.”
Potomac Valley Swimming includes 35 teams in Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the District of Columbia, making it geographically one of the smallest of the 59 regional governing bodies in the United States. Yet with more than 9,000 swimmers, it is the fifth-largest in membership.
Ertter speculates that the largest roadblock to starting a new club in the region is finding lanes in which to swim. Coaches say six swimmers per lane is considered about the limit for a decent practice session among older youths. Often, however, clubs train with more.
“If you’re talking about young age-groupers, I’ve seen workouts where clubs probably have 20-30 kids in a lane,” Ertter said.
New pools open infrequently, and they are usually small. A handful of community pools have popped up in Fairfax County; the Germantown Indoor Swim Center in Boyds opened two years ago; and the Takoma Aquatic Center in Takoma Park opened in 2005.
Arlington, meantime, has been waiting for years for construction of a recreation center near the 14th Street bridge that would include a 50-meter competitive pool. Despite $50 million in bonds the county board made available in 2004, rising costs have stalled the project.
The proposed recreation center will contain a therapy pool to rent out for medical needs, a warm pool for kids and senior citizens, and a workout room filled with exercise machines and weights. Without such amenities, such a facility could not make money, Nelson said.
“It’s sort of a catch-22,” said Erik Beach, an Arlington planner heading the Arlington project. “In order to make the facility viable, you have to have a mix of facilities.”
That requires a lot of space – and up-front money.
Though coaches, swim parents and officials have been beaten up, they haven’t given up. Some still toss around the idea of putting plastic bubbles over outdoor pools, such as has been done at the Quince Orchard pool in Gaithersburg.
But paying for the bubbles, converting facilities that don’t meet USA Swimming requirements and satisfying neighborhood concerns present roadblocks.
Lewis said he fantasizes about putting temporary pools in vacant lots every time he passes an old warehouse or closed-down store.
“With my situation, it’s something that’s stuck in my craw for quite a while,” Lewis said. Some clubs “are a lot bigger than I am, but I realize they are fighting the same battle.”