At first glance, it looks like the contractors made a mistake. There, on the locker room walls at the new Huntsville Aquatics Center, are electric blow dryers. Rather than being at sink level for convenience, they’ve been hung six feet off the ground.
Then it hits you.
Wet hair is as prevalent as wet hands for swimmers. An electric blower that’s scalp-high is a valuable commodity.
That’s just one of about 45,821 tiny details you might overlook but are evidence of the attention paid to make the Huntsville Aquatics Center a national showcase.
“This place is going to be amazing,” says Ricky Wilkinson, the project manager representing the City of Huntsville. “It’s something to be proud of.”
The $22.4 million facility has already undergone its beta testing. The Legacy Pool, the existing 50-meter pool with retractable roof that was the centerpiece of the old Brahan Spring Natatorium, has barely missed a stroke in the construction process. The Instructional Pool, for toddler’s swim classes and seniors’ therapy sessions, and all demographics in between, has been open for nearly two months.
I don’t know of another facility in the South that’s going to be able to touch it when it comes to aquatics.”
Now comes the ceremonial dive-in the pool with local swim teams and the debut of the crown jewel, the 50-meter Competition Pool, designed for speed and for spectators, with 1,400 seats. The pool has a glass wall on its south side, enabling a view of Brahan Spring Lake and, off in the distance, Monte Sano.
It is believed that the Legacy and Competition pools give Huntsville the country’s only two 50-meter competition pools under the same roof.
“It makes me proud to say we delivered a world-class aquatic facility,” says Chris O’Neil. There is wonderful symmetry here. O’Neil is one of the most decorated swimmers in Huntsville history and he honed his craft in the Legacy Pool. Now, he has created a legacy himself, as the City of Huntsville’s Facilities Construction Project Manager. He played a leadership role on a team of visionaries that saw the potential in a spectacular swim center.
The City had a choice to make regarding the Brahan Spring Center, the predecessor to this facility. The old place needed a facelift. Then when downtown development necessitated the closing of the Williams Aquatic Center, there was the need for a pool to serve that clientele’s demand for an exercise and instructional pool.
“It’ll pay dividends for decades to come,” predicts O’Neil. Not only will the center serve residents for their recreational swimming, but it will host local meets – starting with the Rocket City Swim League’s annual City Meet July 7-9 – and will give the Huntsville Sports Commission and other entities a property with which they can entice major events into the city.
“I don’t know of another facility in the South that’s going to be able to touch it when it comes to aquatics,” says Steve Ivey, Director of the City of Huntsville Parks and Recreation Department. “We’re going to be able to put on swim meets that bring hundreds of people to Huntsville.”
It’s swimmer-friendly, designed to be fast: “I predict we’ll not only see local records shattered but when we’re able to host a national-caliber event we’ll see national records broken here,” says O’Neil.
There is a moveable bulkhead that can transform the eight-lane, 50-meter setup into a 16-lane, 25-yard pool, swimming crossways. There is indirect lighting to avoid reflection into swimmers’ eyes on the starting blocks. The blocks themselves are Olympic-caliber.
It’s spectator-friendly, designed for fans and families: The glass wall helps eliminate that “Vegas Syndrome” of being caught indoors all day with no idea of the time. The aesthetics are pleasing. There are concession stands on the concourse and plenty of parking.
An elaborate ventilation system will keep air flowing and avoid murky water that must be “shocked” with chlorine, which is often necessary on the final day of meets, and which leaves the air thick with the chemical smell. An audio system is included that can reach all three pools, or be limited to one at a time.
“There was nothing pulled back,” Wilkinson says of the detail, invoking a construction cliché. “There was no ‘value engineering.”
In other words, no shortcuts.
“We had the opportunity to do something right,” O’Neil says, “and we did.”