SANTA CLARA — It was considered the crown jewel of the city when it was built in 1965.
Tucked away in a quiet single-family neighborhood in Santa Clara, the George F. Haines International Swim Center — named in 2000 after the late legendary U.S Olympic swimming coach — has been likened to the legacy of Yankee Stadium by coaches past and present.
The Mission City became the epicenter of U.S. swimming in the 1960’s and 70’s, with Haines training Olympians like Don Schollander, Donna de Varona and Mark Spitz, who won a record seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympic Games — an achievement only eclipsed by Michael Phelps.
Since then, Haines’ Santa Clara Swim Club has produced 80 Olympians and won 51 Olympic medals. Twenty-three world records have also been set in the Santa Clara pool, with the most recent by a 17-year-old Phelps in 2003. The club also shares the facility with the world-famous Santa Clara Aquamaids, headed by coach Chris Carver who trained the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic synchronized swimming teams at the facility.
But while Santa Clara continues to be ranked among the top swimming cities in the country and its swimmers continue to earn prestige, the more than 50-year-old city-owned swim center is feeling the effects of its age.
The swim center is comprised of three pools: a 17-foot deep diving well, a 50-meter competition pool and a shallow pool that houses a learn-to-swim program. The pools are used by a myriad of groups including the swim club, the Aquamaids, diving and water polo teams and a masters swimming program. The swim center is also open to the public almost daily for lap swimming, as well as recreational swimming in the summer.
But many of those activities came to a halt last year when the pool was closed for more than 100 days due to maintenance issues, according to Santa Clara Swim Club head coach Kevin Zacher. A leak in the pool’s boiler alone led to a more than month-long closure in the fall as the part needed for its repair had to be custom made.
“We’re just worried that things like that could continue to happen, and to the point where it won’t be repairable and we won’t have a place to swim,” Zacher said.
Other parts of the facility are also showing wear and tear. Tiles along the walls of the 50-meter pool have started to rust, paint is peeling off the sides of the decades-old buildings and a section of the showers have been closed off in the locker rooms because they’re no longer usable.
Veronica Ospina, whose two children have been swimming for the club for six years, said that while the condition of the swim center doesn’t necessarily bother them, it’s become difficult that the pool has been closed so many days.
“It’s really hard because of course you have loyalty to the club, but then you have your kids telling you, ‘mommy if I don’t swim I won’t be able to reach my goals,’” she said.
The club recently made its case to the Santa Clara City Council about the declining state of the swim center and the need for a new facility. But the city is facing a $19.6 million deficit in the coming fiscal year, and recent polling indicates that a potential infrastructure bond to fund it wouldn’t have enough voter support to pass this year.
The council has yet to make a final decision on the matter, but it’s possible the bond measure could be delayed until 2024.
The Aquamaids’ Carver has coached at the swim center since 1980 and has watched the facility decline over the years. She’s also witnessed several attempts to breath life back into the swim center or rebuild it completely.
The latest was in 2016 when the council approved plans for a new 171,650 square foot combined swim and recreation center, along with a 1,242 space parking garage. The state-of-the art designs boasted a warm water pool for swimming lessons, a 50-meter training pool, a 50-meter competition pool and a diving well complete with arena seating. At the time, the International Swimming Hall of Fame was also making plans to move into the new facility once it was complete.
But the project came with a $184 million price tag, and even with a public-private partnership between the city and the Silicon Valley Aquatics Initiative — a nonprofit formed to support a new facility — there wasn’t a way to fund it.
Then, in 2018, the city reviewed the condition of its parks and recreation facilities as part of a discussion of whether to put a bond measure on the ballot to fund improvements. The swim center was deemed to be in critical shape, recording the worst score out of all the city’s parks and recreation buildings. City polling, however, showed there wasn’t enough support from residents. So the idea of a bond was scuttled.
“It impacts us in how we train, it impacts us in how we recruit, it impacts us in what we can offer to the community,” Carver said. “You get kind of depressed about it because you know it needs to happen, you know that just about every city has a more updated facility than we do.”
Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder Chris Cavanaugh, who serves as the board president for the swim club and the president of the Silicon Valley Aquatics Initiative, said they’ve been waiting to see what the city wants since the a bond measure keeps getting put off.
But whatever Santa Clara eventually decides, he wants to see a swim center that caters to the needs of the entire community.
While the future of the pool that Haines built hangs in the balance, Cavanaugh assures that the condition of the pool hasn’t been a limitation in what swimmers over the years have achieved.
“One of the great parts about Santa Clara is the legacy being from the 1960s and the performance there, it’s a great draw,” Cavanaugh said. “It has a mystique and a value that not only the community of swimming recognizes, but the community of Santa Clara city recognizes.”