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Local swimmers among those trying to save WLU pool

The fight is on to save the pool at Wilfrid Laurier University, and the Region of Waterloo Swim Club (ROW) is leading the charge.

In a few short weeks, the club has rallied to raise more than $675,000, with a goal of $1 million. The club, along with other users, is looking to save the area’s only Olympic-size pool.

The pool’s deteriorating condition came to light in a pair of engineering reports, the results of which were made public last summer. The biggest problem was the pool’s ventilation system; the cost of repairing it was pegged at $2.2 million.

In June, ROW was told the 35-year-old pool would be closing at the end of the summer.

“It’s like being evicted without enough notice,” said Tracy Bennett, the swim club’s president. “I did notice that it was a little bit worn, but who knew that it was going to close down?”

That put ROW in a tough position; not only is the WLU facility the only 50-metre pool in the region, but there just isn’t enough water time at other pools for ROW’s 300 swimmers to practice.

“It’s not like we can do our sport on a soccer field,” Bennett said.

They pressed Laurier for more time, and the university pushed the deadline back to Dec. 31. Now the pool is open on a day-to-day basis; how long it stays open depends on how soon the ventilation system fails.

“Like everybody else, I [was] upset that they were closing it, but not surprised that Laurier had to do something, because the cost of repair … was obviously out of their budget,” said Elmira resident John Kendall.

His son Ian currently swims with the club and his daughters, Heather and Laura, are alumni of ROW’s swimming programs. Laura is now captain of the varsity swim team at the University of Guelph, where she’s in her fourth year.

“[ROW] provided them with opportunities to swim at a level that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get,” Kendall said. “They’ve been able to get coaching that’s world class because our head coach [Dean Boles] is probably one of the top two or three coaches in Canada, if not the top coach in Canada. Training at that level gives the kids the opportunity … to be able to swim on a varsity team.”

As one of the top swimming schools in Canada, Laurier draws students from across Canada and beyond – one student came to WLU from Bermuda – for its swimming program. If the pool closes, those students will have to quit swimming or switch schools.

The fight to save Laurier’s pool was given extra urgency last week when a proposal for a new aquatics facility at the University of Waterloo fell through after an anonymous donor pulled out.

Even though ROW is just a tenant of the pool, the group has taken the lead in raising public awareness.

“If we didn’t step up to the table and say, we’re going to take some ownership here and we’re going to show some leadership in terms of fundraising, the pool would have been closing, said fundraising chair Christine Tutssel. “Instead of asking everybody else – the cities and the region – let’s show them we mean business.”

Tutssel said three donors contributed almost half of the money they’ve raised so far; one family came forward and two others matched their donation.

The pool is part of Waterloo’s recreation master plan and listed as an attraction, yet the city has contributed little to the pool’s operation or upkeep. Now ROW is asking the cities and Waterloo Region to step up and follow ROW’s lead.

Bennett said the group got a good reception from Waterloo council, which asked staff to report back on funding options. They also plan to approach regional council in January to ask for its help.

“I think we’re at least closer to being able to work on a short-term solution, and that will give us time to work on a long-term solution,” Bennett said. “We’re still hanging, but at least they’re isn’t a date yet. There isn’t this pressing D-Day any more.”

Bennett said she’s optimistic the community will be able to find a solution to keep the pool open. And given the current focus on staying healthy and fit, she’d like to see swimming recognized as a beneficial activity.

“I don’t know of any other club that’s had to put money into a facility to keep it open,” she said. “Playing hockey isn’t going to save anyone’s life. Swimming is a life-saving skill.”

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