Santa Clara searching for temporary solutions after it shuttered the International Swim Center over safety concerns

Santa Clara searching for temporary solutions after it shuttered the International Swim Center over safety concerns

SANTA CLARA — With the future of the storied George F. Haines International Swim Center hanging in the balance, the city is looking to temporarily reopen two of the three pools as it explores long-term solutions to rebuilding the nearly 60-year-old facility.

On Jan. 11, the city shuttered the swim center, citing safety and structural concerns following an assessment of the facility last fall by a team of experts. They discovered that a majority of the swim center was past its “usable life.”

The main building that includes the locker rooms is “structurally unsound,” the diving tower shows cracking throughout and the stairs leading up to the tower’s different platforms are rusted and corroded. The concrete bleachers have also started to separate and the canopy overhang above poises a fall risk as pieces of the roof have started to break down.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 28: A storage room has holes in the wood at the International Swim Center Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

On Tuesday night, the Santa Clara City Council voted unanimously to try to find a way to reopen two of the three pools — a shallower pool largely used by learn-to-swim programs and the 50-meter by 25-yard lap pool — while they search for funding and deliberate on whether to rebuild, redesign or look for another location to construct a new swim center.

The council was met with pleas for help from the community groups that use the facility including Santa Clara Swim Club, Santa Clara Diving and the Santa Clara Aquamaids. Since the closure nearly three weeks ago, the teams have been frantically searching for pool space that sometimes doesn’t exist, impacting swimmers and divers’ training schedules — some of whom are preparing for Olympic trials this summer.

Nicholas Sifferman, a national level swimmer for Santa Clara Swim Club who has swam at the center for 12 years, said the facility has been held together by “duct tape and a few prayers.”

“It is disheartening to witness the legacy of the swim club and the reputation of our city being compromised by the neglect of this facility,” he told the council. “The ISC, once a point of pride, now stands as a symbol of our city’s own disregard for its history and the community that cherishes it.”

The closure of the swim center was felt far beyond Santa Clara, or even California’s, boundaries. Santa Clara Swim Club coach Dave Meck, who has coached the team for nearly three decades, said he received calls of condolences from people in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia and Brazil.

The facility, and the teams that use it, are a part of aquatics history. Twenty-three world records have been set in the pool — including one by Michael Phelps. Haines, whom the swim center was renamed for in 2001, was the founding coach of Santa Clara Swim Club and is considered one of the most successful coaches in the sport. Since the 1950s, the club has produced 80 Olympians who have won 51 medals at games.

The Santa Clara Aquamaids, an artistic swimming team, have also put the city on the map. Coach Chris Carver trained the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams in the Mission City, and the Aquamaids have produced 30 Olympians in the last 28 years.

Liza Zakharov, 16, of Santa Clara, is lifted by Sophia Tsives 15, right, and Janneke Driven, 17, of Los Gatos, left, during Santa Clara Aquamaids practice at Quicksilver Swimming at Gunderson High School in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

The history and significance of the International Swim Center not just to elite athletes, but to the community as well, was emphasized by several dozen parents, coaches, divers and swimmers on Tuesday night.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor, whose own children learned to swim at the facility, said she was “embarrassed” by its state.

“I don’t want to see that die,” she said of the swim center. “It’s a huge part of who we are and it’s the fabric of our community.”

Because the building that houses the locker rooms and bathrooms is unstable, Gillmor suggested bringing in portables to fill the gap so at least some of the swimmers can get back into the swim center.

The divers and the Aquamaids, who practice in the diving well, however, will have to continue to search for pool time elsewhere for now.

Consultants with LPA Inc. recommended closing the diving well not just because of the cracked diving tower that stands above it, but because the pool itself has structural concerns. LPA Managing Director Steven Key said that the viewing area — an underground section with windows looking into the pool — has cracks in the walls and signs of corrosion. If it were to break, he said “the pool water could actually suck you out into this area.”

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 28: Fiora Beratahani, of San Jose, practices diving at the International Swim Center Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

With little-to-no chances of the diving well reopening, Santa Clara Diving head coach Todd Spohn told The Mercury News that “it could be the thing that causes us to fold.”

The team has 80 divers and in the last several weeks they’ve struggled to find pools in the South Bay with a 3-meter diving board. Last weekend, the team drove all the way to Novato in Marin County to practice.

“We’re kind of losing our training base so the kids aren’t feeling very confident about their diving,” Spohn said.

The city is also exploring purchasing a temporary 50-meter pool and diving well. The above ground pools have been used in the U.S. Olympic trials in recent years because they can be installed anywhere. City Manager Jovan Grogan said it could cost $2 million on the low end for one pool, and if Santa Clara can’t find one that’s already existing, it could take a year to purchase it.

With a plan in place to address short-term issues, Santa Clara is looking at the November 2024 ballot for a potential bond measure to fund a new facility. The city’s infrastructure needs have been piling up for years, resulting in at least $571 million in unfunded maintenance for parks, fire stations, streets and other community buildings. Santa Clara, though, only has $23.9 million in its current capital reserve for projects of this sort.

For now, some of the groups that use the International Swim Center are cautiously optimistic.

Santa Clara Swim Club head coach Kevin Zacher said in an interview that he thinks “our community feels some hope” and that he felt the “city understands the importance of the swim center and wants to preserve it.”

The future of the swim center, though, is still uncertain.

“This has come up before and there’s been talk and no action,” Zacher said. “We need action.”