Need for a review of priorities

Outdated facilities holding back athletes

John Browne
Published on December 5, 2013

St. John’s Legends and Memorial University Sea-Hawks varsity swim coach Aaron Dahl says if there’s any desire to have world class athletes in world class facilities, or even facilities that meet the minimum standard across Canada, then something needs to be done, and not only about the facilities. He said there needs to be a review of access and the cost associated with these facilities.

©— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

New St. John’s Legends and Memorial University varsity swim coach Aaron Dahl suggests there needs to be a change in attitude regarding athletic facilities and the delivery of competitive sport in Newfoundland.
“New facilities,” says Dahl, “won’t make any difference if the mandate continues to be recreation and profit first, and sport second.

“The situation in St John’s isn’t desperate if the goal is to maintain the minimum standard,” he said.

The Aquarena, situated on the Memorial campus, was constructed in 1976 for the 1977 Canada Summer Games, and remains the only 50-metre pool in the province.

Dahl replaced former Legends and Memorial head coach Brad Hutton in August and even in his short time in the city he recognizes the need for a new pool.

He said if there’s any desire to have world class athletes in world class facilities, or even facilities that meet the minimum standard across Canada, then something needs to be done, and not only about the facilities. He said there needs to be a review of access and the cost associated with these facilities.

“Ideally,” Dahl said, “there needs to be a mandate inside of sport in St. John’s where performance comes first. Where facilities are designed and built with the end in mind, and access is granted to high performance sport based on performance metrics in place to move aquatic sport forward in Newfoundland to be competitive with the other provinces.”

One former Legends executive told The Telegram that under the stewardship of The Works — the body which runs the Aquarena, Field House and other recreation facilities on the university campus — the Aquarena is operated on a strict cost recovery basis which has, “marginalized competitive swimming in favour of recreational users.”

The permanent recreational water slides and toys, multiple users, limited pool time availability as well as high water temperatures, he said, are all impediments to high performance sport. Playing host to a swim meet at the Aquarena costs the St. John’s Legends in excess of $15,000.

Dahl agrees high performance sport in aquatic facilities rank very low in access priority. The biggest challenge in St John’s, he said, is access to appropriate training space and time.

As determined by Dahl, the best swimmers in St John’s are able to access the facility approximately two-thirds of the time needed for them to be competitive with the best swimmers in Canada.

“New facilities,” he said, “with a focus on performance will enable aquatic sports to move forward, attract better coaches and properly develop our athletes.”

Dahl, from Victoria, B.C., and a three-time Swimming Canada youth male coach of the year who coached at the FINA junior world championship in Peru, said he could only speak for the Legends and the university’s varsity team, but neither, he maintains, have the appropriate space or time to develop a top level competitive program.

St. John's recently      announced plans for a $32M facility that will include a six-lane, 25-metre lap pool and a separate pool for people with physical disabilities in Wedgewood Park, but that doesn’t impress Dahl.

Construction is currently ongoing in Mount Pearl on a new aquatics facility, but that, too, also only features a 25-metre pool.

“Why would you build a pool that’s six lanes and 25 meters with a separate pool for disabled patrons,” Dahl asks of the St. John’s facility, “when you could build a 10-lane, 52 meter pool with two one-meter bulkheads that has a movable floor at the one end for people with disabilities?

“And $32 million? I don’t know what that includes, but it’s a ton of money for another community pool that will likely not be used for anything but swimming lessons and lane swim.

“We are hosting the (2021) Canada Games in 92 months’ time and we don’t have a facility that can host the Games. The Aquarena is dated and isn’t spectator-friendly. The meet requires a 50-meter pool, and the Aquarena is the only one in the province.”

Dahl wants to know why the provincial government isn’t on this now, and trying to partner with the City of St. John’s on a facility that can host the Games.

“If it cost an additional $4 million to $5 million to make this a facility that we can actually use and is different from all the other facilities, isn’t that a better investment than building another facility before the Games that can’t host the swimming competition?”

Dahl said having the proper facility to host the Games is very important, but having a facility that aquatic users can access at a price in line with what other clubs in other provinces pay is more important. And having proper access to that facility for years before the Games is even more important.

According to Dahl, Newfoundland needs to have access to a facility not just to host the Games, but to be competitive at the Games.

“If we build a facility one year before the Games like we did in 1976 for the ’77 Summer Games, we have the facility but we don’t have the team to be competitive.

“The last thing we did in Newfoundland to really move swimming forward was to build the Aquarena. And now, 37 years later, we have the same facility, with less access, a higher price tag and decreased ability to host due to poor viewing and an outdated competition tank.

“We need to look forward and be proactive in this regard, and now is the time to do that. If we build a pool for 2021 in 2020, then all we have is a pool without a team that will be competitive when the Games arrive in 2021.”

Dahl said the municipal and provincial governments need to understand that fielding competitive teams for initiatives like the Canada Games starts the moment we find out that we’re hosting. He said there’s a legacy that will be passed down from this Games.

“We need to decide if that legacy is to be performance, or if it’s simply to be a good host to the teams that will come here and beat us.”