Tommie swimmers soon will plunge into a 'wicked fast' new pool

In the world of competitive swimming, there are fast pools and faster pools.

Come September, the University of St. Thomas may well claim the fastest pool in the Midwest. That’s when the aquatic center in the new Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex opens its doors on the university’s St. Paul campus.

UST head swimming coach Dr. Tom Hodgson has been coaching UST swimmers since 1979.

UST head swimming coach Dr. Tom Hodgson has been coaching UST swimmers since 1979.

“We tried to think of every element that might make this a faster pool, and we were able to incorporate every one,” said Dr. Tom Hodgson, swim coach at St. Thomas since 1979.

Several factors in a pool’s design allow swimmers to record faster laps, water depth being the most important.  “Our pool is 8 feet deep at the ends and 9 feet in the middle,” Hodgson said. “That makes it one of the deepest pools around, even deeper than the University of Minnesota pool, widely acknowledged as one of the fastest in the country.”

Minimizing turbulence also makes a pool fast. By returning the filtered water to the bottom of the pool instead of near the surface, under the gutters, Hodgson said, “there should be no turbulence in the upper 3 to 4 feet where the swimmers hold the water.”

A set of double lane lines knock down waves as well. “Our racing lanes are over 8 feet wide, so we have room enough to use double lane lines. Since we’re not stringing the lane lines to a bulkhead, we can tighten them down to make them far more effective.” Instead of a slippery stainless steel surface so common to other modern pools, St. Thomas’ new pool features tile right to the lip of the gutter, which improves grip for no-slip push-offs.

The new pool is 25 yards long and will have eight race lanes, three more than the old pool. For practice sessions, lane lines can be added to the separate diving area for an additional four lanes.

“The size of the new pool is a huge, huge change from the old O’Shaughnessy Hall,” Hodgson said.  “The diving well alone is only 2 feet more narrow than the entire old pool.  The lanes in the new racing pool are each over 2 feet wider, and there are eight lanes instead of five.”

The diving well, which is 14 feet deep, anchors the south end of the pool, where floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the university’s lower quadrangle. Special touches include heated deck tiles around the two diving boards and an amazing cushion-of-air feature that can be used when divers are learning new dives. A large blast of air is released at the bottom of the pool when a diver is about to enter the water;  bubbles rising to the surface help soften the blow of a potentially painful landing.

It’s been almost 25 years since St. Thomas had diving facilities on campus. The boards in the old pool were removed around 1985 to comply with water-depth safety regulations. Since then, St. Thomas divers have had to train off-campus. “Our divers are going to love this pool,” Hodgson said. “As both a teaching and competitive facility, the new diving area will be absolutely fantastic.”

Training features of the aquatic center include a state-of-the-art timing system and video scoreboard from Colorado Timing Systems.  “We can harness the amazing versatility of this timing system in a dozen ways to help our swimmers,” Hodgson said. “We can measure reaction time for starts and relay take-offs, program different pace clocks for all 12 lanes, even put the video from our underwater cameras onto the video board.  The possibilities are very exciting.” A custom-designed and tuned Bose sound system complements the visual components.

The aquatic center accommodates about 400 spectators with standing room, twice as many as the old pool. “With two levels of seating, the effect is like an amphitheater,” Hodgson said. “Spectators on the mezzanine will feel like they are floating above the swimmers.  It will be a view of a swim meet unlike anything around here.”

When O’Shaughnessy Hall first opened in 1940, the pool and gymnasium were “magnificent,” Hodgson said. But as new pools opened in the conference over the past quarter century, St. Thomas went from first to worst. “The old O’Shaughnessy pool was an elegant, intimate space, and we loved it, despite its 2,000-gallon-a day leaks,” Hodgson said. “But the excitement over the new pool has washed away most of the nostalgia.”

The pool will sport a purple, gray, and white color scheme and will be bathed in plenty of natural lighting. The men’s and women’s locker and shower areas are a short walk away from the water. When it’s not being used by the swimming teams, the new aquatic center is expected to get a lot of use from students, staff and faculty, especially since the McCarthy Gym pool was closed last spring on the university’s south campus.

The Opus design team for the new pool was headed by Bill Beyer, the architect who designed the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.  “Bill and the Opus team have been terrific to work with, and the support from the St. Thomas administration and athletic director Steve Fritz has made the dream into reality,” Hodgson said. “They all deserve a lot of credit for this remarkable pool.”

Word quickly got around Minnesota’s swimming community that St. Thomas had something exciting in the works. “Even before the pool walls were up, we were receiving inquiries from schools and swim clubs that want to rent the aquatic center for practice and meets,” Hodgson said. “While we may be able to accommodate some of these requests, our first priorities are to the great kids on our swimming teams and to our students, faculty, and staff.”

In addition to helping design the aquatic center, Hodgson has been watching its construction with great interest. He looked on as they tore down the old O’Shaughnessy Hall, dug the hole for the new pool, poured tons of concrete, and eventually filled it with water to perform a critical leak test. The new pool passed the test just fine, he said. It later was drained and the recently installed pool and deck tiles are in the midst of a 28-day curing process.

Hodgson is understandably excited to get the inaugural season in the new pool under way.  Despite practicing in three different pools last season, his men’s team placed first in the MIAC for the first time since 1954, and the women placed third of 11 teams.

“We have a very talented and hard-working family of swimmers. After what they did last year, practicing half of the year in a pool that didn’t even have starting blocks, they’ve earned a chance to do their best in the best facility. Wait till they bring that kind of chemistry into this wicked-fast pool.”