BRANDON - Perhaps the Manitoba organizers were paying homage to the first Canada Summer Games when they chose Brandon's six-lane facility for the swimming competition.
A six-lane pool in 1969 is one thing, but in 1997? When Brandon's pool was selected for the 1997 Canada Summer Games, many people reacted by asking, "Why are swimmers being shortchanged yet again?"
"The Canada Games people talked about building a new pool or tearing out the far wall and expanding the existing one, but (these options cost) too much money," said Myles Tycholis, managing director of Swim Manitoba and the swimming venue's media liaison. A new facility or even a major construction job can cost a fortune, and amateur sport doesn't have a fortune to spend. Not only that, said Tycholis, but when Brandon was chosen as the site of the '97 Games, SNC minimum standards required only a six-lane pool for competitive swimming. Games organizers did, however, find enough money to build a new track and a field hockey field.
Suffice it to say, the facility was imperfect. Besides having only six lanes (thus cutting four swimmers out of a second swim in every race), the pool was shallow and lacked warmdown space. And no one, besides coaches and officials, was permitted on the pool deck. Swimmers were relegated to a converted hockey rink adjacent to the pool, where they watched their teammates race via big-screen TVs. There, they sprawled out on mats and could fall asleep in the darkness that was necessary to see the racing. From the stands above, the swimmers resembled flood victims forced out of their homes and into a communal space. "The meet is like 'virtual swimming,'" noted one athlete, referring to how removed they were from the actual pool.
Because of all these factors, many coaches believed the competition would be slow before the meet even began. Some felt the pool setup was blatantly unfair.
"The meet is being held here and not in Winnipeg because they wanted to give the swimmers a Games experience," growled one angry coach on the first day. "But they aren't getting a Games experience at all. I think the swimmers are about 15th on the (organizers') list of priorities."
But elite swimmers are no strangers to challenges. Most athletes not only expected the pool to be much worse than it was, they actually liked it.
"I think it's a great facility. I'm really surprised," said Alberta backstroker Jason Brockman. "It was supposed to be not the best in the world but I really like it."
"The water temperature is perfect, the lane lines are perfect," he said. And as for the stadium? "The darkness makes me relax and get mentally prepared. You have the opportunity to do what it takes for you to reach your optimal performance."
Organizers did do what they could to make the best of a potentially awful situation. Construction work was done in the locker rooms, the pool lining was replaced, the deck surface was redone and the walls were painted. Several stationary bikes were put in the hockey rink for swimmers to use to warm down. There were no major officiating mishaps. And despite the logistical difficulty for the media in getting to swimmers after their races, Myles Tycholis was tremendously organized and helped in any way possible.
As for the "Games experience," most swimmers said they had a great time. "If I did my best time (at nationals) I would have won and gone to Pan Pacs," said Ontario breaststroker Jason Flint. "But that means I wouldn't be here, so it worked out that I probably had a better time here. I'm happy."