COLUMBIA — The Hickman and Rock Bridge swimming teams have a problem.
It’s not talent. They have plenty of that. Their coach John Hamilton sees a top-five state finish for Rock Bridge and several potential state champions on both squads.
It’s not preparation. Both teams are in the pool and weight room daily.
It’s not chemistry. Swimmers can be seen regularly walking out of practice joking and laughing with each other.
It’s the pool.
“There’s no question that we have a subpar facility,” Rock Bridge Athletic Director Jennifer Mast said in an August meeting with parents of swimmers.
The Hickman Municipal Pool was built in 1965 as part of a jointly-owned contract between the board of education and the parks and recreation department. Forty-two years later, the pool is still used daily by the swimming teams despite numerous problems with the facility.
On three separate occasions in the past two years, swimmers have complained to Hamilton of coughing, skin irritation, burning eyes and hair bleaching and thinning as a result of either the water in the pool or the air quality outside the pool. After the second incident in early September, a meeting gathering city and school officials and worried parents was called to address the conditions and outline a plan to revamp the natatorium. Parents voiced their frustration with the pool and its substandard and outdated technology, and officials responded with their plan for action — a $1.6 million city council approved renovation of the pool. The renovation is in its first phase, which includes installing an air conditioning system, upgrading the existing heating and ventilation system and upgrading the chlorine tank and storage room at an estimated cost of $342,000. According to Chester Edwards, the director of building services for Columbia Public Schools, the renovation is expected to be completed May 2008.
In the midst of the problems, swimmers from both schools are responding well. After suffering through a season of controversy and poor swimming conditions, the teams have refused to let the adversity affect their meet results or attitudes.
“The team has handled our pool problems well. It hasn’t had a negative effect on us,” Hamilton said.
According to swimmers, the only consequence has been a positive one. Teammates have developed a form of solidarity, using the pool problems to come together.
“I think it’s been a benefit almost,” Rock Bridge senior Brandon Walker said. “In a sense that we have all struggled through it. We’re overcoming adversity as a group.”
Walker has been one of those swimmers affected directly by the pool. In an August incident, he developed a skin rash as a result of the water in the pool. But he says he is ignoring it and not letting it affect his performance.
“If you worried every day, you wouldn’t want to come. That’s last on our minds,” Walker said.
Ignoring the problem is a trend for swimmers on both teams. Zane Hardy, a senior from Hickman, says he plays down the pool’s problems as an example for freshmen. By hiding or paying no attention to the controversy, Hardy says he feels he’s setting an example for the next generation of swimmers.
“I’m usually the one coughing the most,” Hardy said, laughing. “But I try not to make a big deal out of it.”
Walker said that acclimation to the problems is merely a part of being on the swimming team.
“Especially when you’re coming in as a freshman, if it’s just there, then that’s just what’s normal,” Walker said. “We just try to push through it.”
Since the September meeting, Hardy and Walker said many of the conditions at the pool have improved. However, they said the water quality has remained substandard and the water temperature has been abnormally high. As a result, the entire pool will be drained and refilled with new water Thursday.
Refilling the pool comes too late for Hardy and Walker, though. They aren’t competing in the Last Chance Meet there on Saturday, and next weekend is the state tournament. After that, their careers at Hickman Municipal Pool are finished. They were swimming at the pool before the first report of symptoms in December 2005, an incident where swimmers voluntarily left the pool area as a result of serious coughing and burning eyes. They were sophomores then and will graduate this year without seeing any improvement in the pool’s infrastructure, something that has not gone unnoticed.
“It concerns me, and I kind of had hoped they would do something about it,” Walker said. “But they never really did. Supposedly they’re doing something next May, but I’ll be out of here.”