Tearing Down a Temple

by Casey Barrett

Greedheads, land grabs, and the sad demise of the Phoenix Swim Club… 

May, 1996. This place was the center of the swimming universe. It felt like every country’s Olympic team was there. Every team that mattered, in any case. It was an unshaved showcase for the Atlanta Games on the horizon. It was the Phoenix Grand Prix, hosted by folks who cared about the sport more than anything else. It was swimming at its very best, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had at a swim meet. The stands were packed, the deck buzzing, gold watches for the winners, hell, the finalists in the 50 free didn’t march out, they rode out in eight Go-carts.

That’s the first thing I thought of when I heard the news. Oh boy. That temple of swimming, the home of the Phoenix Swim Club, is about to be no more. This fall, right after the high school championship season, the entire complex will be demolished.

In a desert city lacking in soul, this place had swimmer soul deep in its chlorinated bones. And what will soon stand in its place? The very definition of American soullessness: another cookie-cutter housing development. 

It seems to be a story of good old clueless greed and mismanagement. When the story was first published by Swimming World three weeks ago, it produced a hysterical thread of 88 comments. Read through them and you will find an ugly display of disgruntled finger pointing. Many appear to think the Board of the club deserves to be drowned in the deep end. Others rally to the defense of the coaches. Still others point to the property’s owners, Brophy College Prep, the Jesuit boys school that bought the complex a decade ago.

The whole ugly saga seems to follow the plot of Caddyshack II. Housing developments are more valuable than golf courses. And as it happens, much more valuable than swimming pools.

This much is clear: All involved failed to run a sustainable swimming business on a site that is tailor made for swimming success – both financial and competitive. In addition to the world-class 50-meter competition pool, there is a warm, shallow teaching pool, perfect for a profitable lesson program. (One of the world’s greatest learn-to-swim programs, The Hubbard Family Swim School, started there…) There is also a weight room, a track, and a basketball court, all spread across 10 acres in a perfect suburban location. The club itself has about 500 swimmers, almost 300 of which are young age group and high school age kids. The other 200 are Masters swimmers, who as we all know tend to be both passionate about their pool time, and come loaded with a bit of disposable income.

All of the above adds up to a private equity dream scenario: A mismanaged asset with all the ingredients for a big time turnaround. This site doesn’t need to be razed and replaced with a housing development. It just needs a bit of business sense, and a management team that cares deeply about sustaining a shining example of the sport.

Anyone who’s been to any high level meet over the last two decades is familiar with the Phoenix Swim Club. Just look at the list of A-list coaches who have graced the deck: Dennis Pursely, Pierre La Fontaine, Mike Bottom, Eric Hansen… The list goes on. In the pool, Gary Hall, Jr. is the most prominent swimmer to emerge from these waters, but he’s also joined by Klete and Kalyn Keller, a long list of Olympic Trials Qualifiers and a host of international Olympians who made the club their home base at various times through the years. Indeed, this was the original home of the Hall family’s Race Club, before relocating to South Florida.

Through the Halls and Pursely and Pierre and Bottom and many others, this facility and this club showed the sport how it was done in so many ways, for so many years. I’m not alone in my affection for those Phoenix Grand Prix meets in the late 90’s. I’ve heard Misty Hyman and many other former swimmers share the same fond memories.

When another soulless housing complex goes up on the ashes of this swimming temple, here’s hoping a chlorine-fumed poltergeist haunts its homes.