When the Northeastern State University Fitness Center swimming pool closes Sept. 17 for deck repairs, the Boys & Girls Club Stingrays swim team will temporarily move its training hub to Fort Gibson Public Schools.
Coach Bob Bradshaw says that arrangement should work for the duration of the deck work. But the entire Fitness Center will be shuttered at the end of 2012 for a $5 million overhaul, and Bradshaw’s afraid he’ll have to suspend the team until the renovation is completed in late 2013 or early 2014.
“There’s no money to drive that distance [to Fort Gibson],” he said. “Some of these kids just couldn’t afford it. Eventually, they will just drift away.”
In 2005, Bradshaw approached Boys & Girls Club Chief Professional Officer Janice Randall and asked her if she’d be interested in adding swimming to her program. With Bradshaw’s credentials, she could hardly refuse.
He started swimming in high school, and broke some national records. He went to the Olympic trials in Stanford in 1963, but took a detour through Vietnam. When he returned to the states in 1967, he got back into swimming, and has been coaching and organizing teams since then – without taking a dime of compensation.
Bradshaw is a certified coach with USA Swimming, the officially sanctioned organization for Olympic swimmers. He’s organized five USA Swimming teams – in California, Siloam Springs and Tahlequah. While in Siloam, he was assistant coach for John Brown University. He took his team to nationals, where the relay squad placed in the top three.
Tahlequah boasts the only official USA Swimming team in the nation that operates under the auspices of B&GC. It’s drawn kids from Broken Arrow, Muskogee, Pryor, Westville and Fort Gibson, and several home-schooled children use it as a P.E. credit. After the recent Summer Olympics, the roster jumped to nearly 50.
“Fort Gibson has a high school team and a recreational team. We’ve talked to them about a USA team, but the logistics aren’t there,” Bradshaw said. “Two USA Swimming representatives came here recently and asked how we managed it. I’ve done this so long I can keep the cost minimal. The key is, our entire coaching staff is volunteer.”
The Stingrays is economical in other ways. To affiliate with USA Swimming, a youngster here pays just $64 a year, and $15 per month in dues. That’s far less expensive than most other teams of its kind. And each new member gets a custom-made swimsuit with a Stingrays logo, plus a cap and towel.
Bradshaw has worked out a deal with FGPS to take his team through October. If the NSU deck repair takes longer, it could be a problem, so he has feelers out in other communities.
He wishes someone had asked his opinion about the pool before abruptly closing it.
“I understand they’re wanting to make it much better for everyone, but it’s not in that bad of shape,” he said. “The carpet could have been fixed.”
A lap swimmer, Andy Jorgensen, complained to the health department about water quality, but the inspector didn’t cite that in his report.
“[Jorgensen was complaining about] air quality in an enclosed pool area, about gases,” Bradshaw said. “But they have two fans and the doors open when that pool’s in use, so there’s no chance of toxification. I suggested [NSU] get six large ceiling fans and turn them on; that would help with circulation.”
Bradshaw has offered his help several times. He volunteered to develop and manage an aquatics program at NSU, but was told legal constraints precluded it. He points out he’s subject to criteria far more rigid than the NSU lifeguards or others overseeing the pool. As a certified coach, he must also have a lifeguard certificate, as well as credentials in CPR, first aid, coaching and other areas.
“Through USA Swimming, we carry a $1 million insurance policy per child, so that removes NSU from any liability, and B&GC, too,” he said.
The lane ropes lap swimmers at NSU use were purchased by the youngsters on the Stingray team through fundraisers and donations. Bradshaw hung the rescue hook and make other improvements, out of his own pocket.
The NSU pool is the only indoor facility in the county. When Bradshaw first moved to town, he tried to generate interest in building a community pool, and he approached the Cherokee Nation with the idea. No one seemed interested – not even when Bradshaw brought U.S. Olympic swimming Mark Spitz to town.
It cost $12,000 to get Spitz here, and the swim team raised that money, too. Bradshaw said he invited local dignitaries – like Mayor Ken Purdy and Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith – to a luncheon with Spitz, and very few people showed up.
“[Spitz] has a pool company in Florida, and he told me if we could get $3 million, he’d put in a 50-meter, fully enclosed pool with locker rooms, within three weeks,” Bradshaw said. “He gave me his cell phone and said to call him personally. I went around and talked to people, and no one was that interested.”
He finds this puzzling, especially in light of the Stingrays’ phenomenal success. A couple of years ago, Jordan Robertson took gold medals at nationals for Special Olympics, and he holds the American Special Olympics record in the 50-meter backstroke. Other athletes – including those with disabilities – have amassed a number of awards.
“It went to a meeting with the city recreation department, back when they were talking about a tax, and they said we needed soccer and baseball fields, not a swimming pool,” Bradshaw said.
Connie Parnell, who then was a member of the city recreation board, recalled the measure was cost-prohibitive.
“We looked at the expense of trying to build [an indoor pool],” said Parnell. “That was under former Mayor Ken Purdy, and we didn’t know where the money would come from. So we went in another direction, which has become the sports complex. There were no plans of a pool going in there at all, because we relied on NSU’s pool.”
Parnell said the original proposal included far more than an indoor pool.
“What we originally looked at was a [facility that included] an indoor pool, elevated walking trail and basketball courts,” said Parnell. “We didn’t have an avenue of revenue to pay for it.”
Bradshaw also talked to a Cherokee Nation official, who assured him that unless the tribe could have “complete control,” a pool would “never” be in the offing.
The reins have changed hands for both the tribe and the city, so Bradshaw’s hoping that could change someday.
Mayor Jason Nichols said the city may consider building an indoor swimming facility, at the right price.
“Thus far, none of our plans for swimming pool construction have included one because of the expected cost,” said Nichols. “The figure [Spitz quoted] of $3 million is substantially lower than some of the estimates we made a few years ago. Those were made internally and included features beyond just the pool, so the comparison might not be entirely useful. But the price was so high that even just the indoor pool seemed to cost more than the city could hope to raise.”
Nichols plans to look into the lower figure.
“If we can arrive at a figure that is more accurate, and more realistically fits into our budgetary constraints, then we can certainly try to fit it into our plans. After becoming aware of the issue yesterday, I’ve already given some thought to how we might be able to make this work. But there is still plenty of research to do.”
Nichols would also be willing to discuss cost-sharing with the Cherokee Nation.
“However, I always try to make sure it is something the city couldn’t do on its own before I reach out to other organizations for assistance. It is likely this is one of those projects for which the city will need a little help to make a reality,” he said. “Where that help comes from, if it is determined it is needed, is something that can be worked on once we have a better feel for the size of the financial mountain we are trying to climb.”
The Cherokee Nation operates its own fitness facility on the old Markoma School property, but Amanda Clinton, communications director for the tribe, on Monday said they have no plans to add a pool.
Nichols said he would be more than willing to help facilitate an agreement with another area city that offers indoor swimming.
“No one has yet asked for that help, and I only became aware of the situation yesterday morning,” said Nichols. “But if someone can think of a way I can help or a surrounding community I can call, I’d be happy to do it.”
Staff Writer Teddye Snell contributed to this story.
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