Another high school swim and dive season is over. And it’s another season the swimming community has not had an adequate public aquatic facility.
But it’s no secret the Eastside is lacking an indoor, deep, 50-meter public pool — a facility most swim teams would be thrilled to practice in.
SplashForward, a five-member revamp of the early 2000s group “Splash,” hopes to change that.
With a goal to have a full service aquatics facility on the Eastside by the year 2022, the organization is on a mission to educate the community on the importance a pool could have on the public at large in addition to the many Eastside swim teams.
Instead of that nice big aquatics facility, however, Bellevue swim teams have practiced for years at the Bellevue Aquatic Center, a shallow pool for divers, and the Edgebrook Swim Club, an outdoor pool.
Andrew Boden and Nathan Shao, both seniors at Bellevue High School and captains of the boys swim team, agree their team could be at a disadvantage because of the limited places they can practice.
“I think it would definitely be a very strong advantage to have easy access to a nearby facility with better training conditions,” Andrew Boden said. “If it was indoors, if it had better lane lines, that’s definitely a big factor in helping No. 1 more people get to practice and No. 2 the people at practice get better.”
Shao, who has been swimming since he was 14, said he had to take training off before a swim meet in early February because he got sick.
“One of the problems with this area, it’s Seattle so it’s always raining and it’s always cold outside, so a lot of teams are forced to train outdoors because we just don’t have indoor pool space,” Shao said, noting there’s more outdoor pools than indoor.
Stephanie Boden, Andrew Boden’s mom and coach of the Bellevue High School boys swim team, said the team spent their last practices of the season training at Edgebrook, which is “a nice little summer facility but it’s been a little challenging as far as swimming in the winter time with the weather.”
“Swimming is a no-cut sport in the high school, which is fantastic, but as far as just having indoor pools, there’s just no accommodation,” she said. “So we’ve been swimming outdoors and I think it does deter a lot of kids from doing it because, first of all, you’re swimming in the dark, because you’re swimming at 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. in the evening but also because of the weather.”
Stephanie Boden recalled a few practices in which she was standing outside in the pouring rain as she coached her athletes. The longtime swimmer who swam at a Division I school at Arizona State University said she was always fortunate to have “super great facilities” growing up.
Here, there’s really only one “great” facility, which is the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, she said. But traffic to and from South King County can be a struggle. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the average time it takes to drive the 25 miles from Bellevue to Federal Way is about an hour.
One Bellevue parent, Susan Hainze, knows all too well about the sacrifices parents of swimmers have to make. Her oldest son graduated last year and currently plays Division I water polo at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Her other son is on the Bellevue High School boys swim team.
“Based on my experiences traveling with the team, I questioned why Bellevue, being such a high-tech modern city doesn’t even have a single pool that is qualified to host an official high school level swim meet or water polo championship,” Hainze wrote in an email. “Our Bellevue swim teams borrow the Mercer Island pool to host our home meets and water polo athletes travel to Tacoma through the thick of the traffic to Curtis High School to compete at any official games.”
Because the school district has rules that athletes can’t drive themselves to any away games, parents are then required to drive them.
Frustrated, Hainze wrote to Bellevue School District Athletic Director Jeff Lowell a few years ago about the issue.
Lowell, however, agrees.
“Take a look at the number of kids that are at this particular event,” Lowell said at a Feb. 9 swim meet at Mercer Island’s Mary Wayte Pool in response to the question of “why” Bellevue needs a pool. “Take a look at the number of kids that swim in the school district, number of kids that swim in the summer and just the overcrowded nature of each one of the facilities that are there. There is no public facility other than the Bellevue Aquatic Center, and that can’t hold any competitions there, so it doesn’t provide what these kids need.”
Another parent pointed out there’s inequity within high school sports if there are football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse fields and tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts but no aquatic center for swimmers.
“I have heard a dad said, no kids die because they don’t know how to play tennis, for that matter football, basketball etc., but we have heard too many stories about kids drowning, especially we are surrounded by water here,” Hainze wrote. “All kids need to learn to swim growing up here.”
Whether or not the school district can accommodate its swim teams with a pool is a different story, however. Deputy Superintendent Melissa DeVita, who handles the school district’s financial services and operations, said the district is always looking for opportunities to enhance facilities for their students.
“We have heard from our community about the need for aquatic facilities and will continue to weigh any options that become available to us to meet that need,” she said.
But nothing is currently on the table.
What is being discussed is a King County partnership with the cities of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond.
King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci said the three cities have a common need for a pool and all have done meaningful studies and analysis within the last five to 10 years on that need. Although due to the Great Recession and failed levies, the cities have put a hold on finding a solution for some time.
“I think it’s really time to be working together on a partnership,” Balducci said.
She said representatives from the municipalities and King County are taking a look at placing one major facility with a full-size competitive pool and other features somewhere on the Eastside and then smaller, satellite facilities elsewhere within the three cities. Although there haven’t yet been discussions on where these facilities could go, exactly, nor have they talked finances, she did say they are planning to have a formal discussion on the matter in the coming weeks.
And, through the retirement of the Kingdome bonds, Balducci was able to help secure some funds that can be bonded to about $2 million.
Balducci said the three cities and King County would likely have to study the idea of aquatic facilities on the Eastside before they figure out how to fund it, but she said she would hope they wouldn’t have to go “back to the drawing board” and “start with a blank sheet of paper” because all cities have studied the concept before.
The decision on whether to move forward, and what that could look like, will be made “well before” the end of this year, however.
“This is a budget year for all cities and King County, so it would be really nice if we could [have] an agreement on a path forward,” she said, adding that they’ll be looking at resources, next steps and how to fund those next steps, as well.
Patrick Foran, the city of Bellevue’s Parks and Community Services director, said the Parks Department will give a status update on the work that’s been done through this partnership process to the Bellevue City Council on March 12.
Bellevue has been working with Redmond, Kirkland and King County on this issue since 2016.
“Bellevue last looked at this issue back in 2009 and 2010, so each city has been working on this for some time now,” Foran said. “The King County process was designed to bring us together and see if there was a partnership amongst us that might work.”
Foran said he isn’t aware of how much the aquatics facilities would cost but said he “knows Bellevue does not have the funding to construct a pool” at this time.
“Any project of this magnitude, its core funding mechanism will be several voter initiatives,” Foran said, adding that they will look for public, private and nonprofit partnerships for funding.
Getting the word out about the need for an Eastside pool and cultivating those potential partnerships has, in large part, been one of the goals of SplashForward, that revamped community group.
Sarah Webster, a member of the group, said the original Splash, which formed during Bellevue’s 2009 feasibility study, disbanded in December 2016. The new SplashForward was then reborn in March 2017 and they acted fast, immediately engaging with the city of Bellevue on their interest on an Eastside pool.
“I’ve been incredibly pleased,” Webster said of the group’s communication with the city of Bellevue. “We’ve been with every single council member and we knew there was going to be support from Jennifer Robertson, John Stokes – he has a daughter that swims, and John Chelminiak – his wife is a swimmer.”
Webster said Councilmember Lynne Robinson also came on board, as she is a physical therapist and recognizes the therapeutic benefits a pool could provide. In fact, SplashForward has met with Overlake Hospital and Webster said they’ve expressed interest in partnering to use the pool for their Bariatric and physical therapy patients once it’s built.
“This isn’t just for club swimmers and the high school teams, this is for all ages, all abilities, all backgrounds,” Webster said. “And it’s just really exciting with Bellevue being the city that it is that with the majority minority, being able to provide not only an aquatic center but a cultural community center where people can come together.”
With that concept of “all” Webster points back to swim teams’ “no cut” policy.
“If you have Down syndrome or other types of intellectual abilities, you can still be on a swim team or you can still swim and get exercise,” she said.
The mom of two works hard on this mission not because she hopes her children will benefit from this future facility – they’d be out of school or nearing graduation. It’s in part because of her father and for the future of a sport she loves dearly.
As a scholarship athlete and diver growing up, Webster had hopes her children would also fall in love with the sport but with a traveling husband and the aquatics facility in Federal Way, she said “there was just no way I could do it.”
Still, she saw her son dive off of Yarrow Point into Lake Washington and knew he could have been a scholarship athlete like herself.
“I’m really doing this for others,” she said. “This is also something that I feel my father, who passed away in May and was a huge fan of mine – both of my parents were very involved in my own diving – but they scarified a lot to get me to places and this is something he’d really want me to do.”
For more information on SplashForward, visit the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/splashfwd.