The swimming star has, as happens in his sport, finished where he started. But his has not been a straight path, bordered by lane ropes, with a flip turn at the opposite end.
“My life has come full circle,” Chris O’Neil says.
O’Neil is one of the most decorated swimmers in Huntsville history, up there in a pantheon that would include Olympians Margaret Hoelzer and John Piersma.
He is also Facilities Project Manager for the City of Huntsville, his employer the past 22-plus years. It’s appropriate that a project on which he has been a key team member is the stunning, $22.4-million Huntsville Aquatics Center, a complex for which O’Neil’s description as “world-class” is not hyperbole. A July 6 ribbon-cutting has been scheduled, on the eve of the annual Rocket City Swim League City Meet.
“To be able to play a part in creating this state-of-the-art facility is one of the highlights of my career,” says O’Neil.
He is seeing the project finished where his swim career started. He logged hour after hour, mile after mile in the 50-meter pool at the Brahan Spring Park Natatorium, with its retractable roof and atmosphere that sometimes felt equal parts oxygen and chlorine.
That pool has been encompassed within the new Huntsville Aquatic Center, separated only a short hallway away from the new pool.
Best anyone has been able to research, it gives Huntsville the only two 50-meter indoor competition pools in the same building in the U.S. There is a third pool in the complex, devoted to swimming lessons, therapy and exercise programs.
“We had the opportunity to do something right (for all levels of swimming), and we did,” O’Neil says.
There is some branding involved. The new additions are the Instructional Pool and the Competition Pool. The old pool will be referred to as the Legacy Pool. Perfect naming.
“You look at what that pool did 40 years ago for a kid in Huntsville, Alabama,” O’Neil says. “It started my career and took me all over the world, put me through college. I got to qualify for the Olympics. I traveled across the United States. That pool set me on a course that changed my entire life.”
“If it did that for me and for Margaret and John and other kids,” he continues, “look at what this facility is going to do for the next generation.”
Maybe other kids like, say, Stephen O’Neil, who appears in a video on his dad’s smartphone, outsprinting his peers in a Rocket City meet. Chris and wife Laura have three sons, Christopher Jr., Stephen and Kenneth.
Bringing home the hardware
O’Neil specialized in the short, fast events, like 50-meter and 100 freestyle, 50 and 100 butterfly.
He won a gold medal in the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow, numerous world and national titles (breaking a pool record set 14 years earlier by Mark Spitz in the 1986 U.S. Nationals in the 100 butterfly) and collegiate and high school titles.
O’Neil was four-year All-America at Texas A&M and was enshrined in that school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1999. He was enshrined in the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008, his first year of eligibility.
Only the vagaries of “peaking” at the wrong time — swimmers, other than cyborg types like Michael Phelps, often have only a short career at top speed – cost him a shot at the Olympics. He participated in the Olympic Trials in 1984 but “I’d like to believe I was still climbing,” and by the ’88 Trials he had already completed his college career and was working as an assistant coach at A&M.
Aquatics to Architecture
By that point, he was already eyeing his career in architecture. That, too, had deep roots as a youngster, as his parents Anthony and Cozette built a new home in Huntsville, “the first time I ever got to see construction.” When the family briefly moved to Merritt Island to follow his dad’s job as a NASA mission manager for Skylab, O’Neil would ride his bike to through their blossoming new subdivision and wander through half-completed houses.
“I always loved the idea of taking an idea, a concept, a new building, and getting it on paper. I love the process of watching it come to life,” he says.
It was following his senior season at A&M that he was named the first member of the U.S. squad for the Goodwill Games. After winning gold, he returned to Huntsville and was honored by Mayor Joe Davis. August 15, 1986, was declared “Chris O’Neil Day.” A photo was taken of Chris with his parents and Davis. Some of O’Neil’s medals were displayed on the conference table in Davis’s office.
“This,” O’Neil says, patting the table in the projects office meeting room, “is that same conference table. This is the table I’ve spent most of my career around. Talk about coming full circle in your career.”
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