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Retooling of blocks has 'em in the swim

Few people set out to provide a "typical" experience, but that's exactly the case when it comes to a project undertaken by the Medford YMCA and key members of the local swimming community.

Given a lack of competitive swimming venues in the Rogue Valley, it became clear that something had to be done to once again make the YMCA's Joe and Frances Naumes Aquatics Center a viable alternative.

A decade ago, the venue was used for competitive high school swim meets but that site slowly became less attractive when the swim blocks used to begin each race were removed as a precautionary safety measure.

Some swim meets were still held at the YMCA in the years that followed, but with swimmers having to start in the water for each race, it wasn't quite the same.

"It was real difficult to get anybody real enthused about swimming there because the times just were not meaningful," said Crater swim coach Mike Heckert. "It just wasn't the same as block starting, and they kind of felt like they were being treated like kindergarten swimmers. Even though (the YMCA pool) was a legitimate competition length, without the blocks you don't have anything."

Area teams increasingly turned to the pool at Southern Oregon University in Ashland to host swim meets, but even that has met with a host of issues since July 2007, when the university announced its plans to close the pool.

The Aquatics Foundation of Southern Oregon was formed to help raise funds and help support SOU toward maintaining its aquatics facility, but it became clear that solution was more temporary given the age of the pool and considerable upkeep costs.

The ultimate goal for the swimming community is to someday raise enough funds to build a much-needed larger aquatics facility in Medford, but, given the current economic climate, that time frame is unclear.

That led people like Heckert to contact Brad Russell, CEO Executive Director of the Medford YMCA, to see if anything could be done to upgrade its aquatics facility. Heckert said it didn't take long to realize that Russell was as interested as anyone in reviving the site, it just took some time for all the logistics to be realized.

"Things just end up taking a little longer than you think sometimes," said Heckert, noting that improvements were spurred on by a collection of local high school coaches and swimming enthusiasts.

After some deliberation, the solution to everyone's problem was pretty easy: lower the height of the 30-inch swim blocks in storage.

Yep, it was as simple as that.

The length of the YMCA pool is 25 yards, which is typical of a short-course pool. The only problem was that the swim blocks didn't fit the depth requirements as established by USA Swimming and other national organizations. At a 4-foot depth, which is what the entry depth is for the YMCA's course, the swim-block height must be 18 inches or lower.

The Medford School District stepped up and paid to have the old swim blocks adjusted accordingly, as well as change the angle to a 10-degree slant toward the water instead of being horizontal. The latter adjustment allows swimmers to dive out for a safer start.

"They were able to do it without even making any changes to the hand holds for backstroke, so it worked really well," said Heckert. "What we have now is more standard than has ever been there. Now it is a very typical indoor short-course pool."

The YMCA also underwent some improvements of its own with the addition of ultraviolet light filtration, fresh paint and new lane lines, some pump improvements and a more handicap-accessible entry.

For Russell, the revival of the aquatic facility was an oft-heard request when he took over at the YMCA 21/2 years ago.

"It's been really exciting for us," said Russell, who was central in taking all the proposals to the site's Board of Directors. "I think it's great for the community and I think it's great for the kids and for the sports folks who want to be able to come out and enjoy swimming in their own area. I'm just really proud of our Board for being willing to invest in the facility here."

Russell said making the swim blocks 18 inches has "made all the difference in the world" in providing another competitive venue for local swimmers and easing safety concerns for all involved. Prior use was touch and go whether schools would be insured to take care of any liability issues, but having blocks that meet industry standards for the 4-foot depth has alleviated that concern.

"It's nice for the YMCA, too," added Russell. "We work every day to certainly support and engage the families that walk through our front doors. This is just another one of the ways we can do that."

The first swim meet with the new setup was last Monday, with the boys and girls swim teams from North Medford and Crater high schools doing battle. Russell said four more swim meets are on the YMCA schedule, with the next being at 11 a.m. Saturday when South Medford and Crater square off.

"It was just wonderful to see all the kids and all the parents lined up on the side during that first meet," said Russell. "It was really rocking back there."

The swim teams for North Medford, South Medford and Crater high schools all practice at the YMCA these days, although new swimmers cannot be taught off the current blocks at that depth so coaches are forced to be a little creative in finding time at the SOU pool and at Rogue Scuba for deep-water training. Once swimmers are skilled in starting from the blocks, the depth barrier is removed.

Just having another option to train and compete is "priceless" for Heckert.

"We're very fortunate to be in the position we are now," he said. "At least for the short time until we hopefully can come together and get another pool built."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

Swimmers make their way across the pool at Southern Oregon University during a June fundraiser to help keep the pool open. - Mail Tribune file photo