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'The Nat' Remains King

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The enthusiasm created when youth crosses paths with opportunity remains a frequent visitor to the three-story building snug in its surroundings on the IUPUI campus.

Today the IUPUI Sport Complex, home of the IU Natatorium, will, as it has the past three decades, place a ceiling above an array of emotions at the annual IHSAA Girls Swimming and Diving State Finals.

Champions are sure to rejoice. Those who for one reason or another fall short of their desired objective are certain to demonstrate levels of disappointment.

Existing beyond today to witness more practice laps and big-time events is the IU Natatorium, ageless teller of tales since 1982.

It’s easy to visually bypass a facility dedicated to swimming and diving when the Indianapolis skyline contains newer and higher-profile athletics complexes such as Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium and Victory Field. But the IU Natatorium, its ordinary exterior contrasting the magnificence within, has been as consistent as an eastern sunrise.

Some viewed it as the breakout star of the 1987 Pan American Games, hosted by Indianapolis. Jenny Thompson swam for gold there; American divers Greg Louganis and Kelly McCormick dove for it. The building’s overall resume is staggering — 101 American and 15 world records established inside its walls.

Here’s the kicker: The IU Natatorium remains in demand as much today as it was during its infancy.

In March alone it rolls out the proverbial red carpet for the Big East Conference Swimming and Diving Championships (March 1-3), the Indiana Stage Age Group Championships (March 15-17), the NCAA Women’s Division I Championships (March 21-23) and the NCAA Men’s Division I Championships (March 28-30).

In all, the 2013 calendar year includes 36 events. Already there are 26 booked for 2014, 21 for 2015, 17 for 2016 and 18 for 2017.

Today’s girls state finals represent the 31st consecutive year it’s been hosted by the IU Natatorium. The same holds true for the boys finals scheduled for Feb. 22-23. Gaining a greater appreciation for the building comes easy when one considers the boys event, now in its 76th year, utilized 10 different facilities (12 if you count two-timers Butler and Ball State universities) to host the finals prior to the IU Natatorium’s opening.

“Without a doubt, it’s the largest swimming and diving venue in the state, but there is a potential folks take it for granted. We’ve been there forever, and I think IU and IUPUI are committed to keeping the state finals there,” said Bobby Cox, commissioner of the IHSAA.

“They don’t book anything those two weeks (in February) and have just been great to work with. We’re hoping the natatorium will continue to thrive and grow and that we’ll continue to be there.”

More than just water

The IU Natatorium might seem ageless to first-time or even frequent observers. But while it’s aged gracefully, it faces competition with the inevitable construction of newer, larger swimming and diving facilities in other parts of the United States.

As a result, the IU Natatorium, host of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials every four years from 1984-2000, has since been replaced by facilities in Long Beach, Calif., (2004) and Omaha, Neb., (2008 and ‘12). The seating capacity (4,700), once considered cutting-edge in the competition pool area, no longer is deemed adequate for this event.

Nonetheless, the IU Natatorium remains a hot spot in terms of Olympic training for swimmers and divers. It has hosted the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials as recently as 2008, giving way in 2012 to the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center just south of Seattle.

There is the chance the diving event will return to Indianapolis. The IU Natatorium is still viewed nationally as a state-of-the-art swimming and diving facility no matter how many years pass.

“There are not a lot of places like it. I’ve even heard people call it the Yankee Stadium of swimming,” said Julie McKenney, the IU Natatorium’s director and an employee there since October 1984. “You see it for the first time and there’s that ‘wow’ factor to it. It’s never dull. Never boring. Always evolving. We have a very small staff, and these are people who are passionate about making this place successful.”

Newest among nine full-time staff members is Pat Schaecher, the business development manager for the IUPUI Sports Complex, which includes the neighboring Michael A. Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium.

The Nebraska native had never set foot inside the IU Natatorium before arriving for his job interview in October. Now that he has, his mission is clear.

“My emphasis right now is bringing state events to Carroll Stadium and to the Natatorium. It comes back to just getting the word out,” Schaecher said. “I wouldn’t say people take it for granted, but, locally, I feel people have grown accustomed to the amenities we have.”

Another plus is that all events hosted are treated with the same care. Whether junior, senior or something synchronized, the IU Natatorium staff has long taken pride in its sense of teammwork.

“I would say over half the staff has been here for many years. For our marquee events it’s ‘all hands on deck,’ and we get it done,” Schaecher said. “We take a lot of pride in how the Natatorium is perceived. It really is a great staff, and everybody’s contributing.”

The IU Natatorium is currently home to 1,870 members who utilize the swimming and/or weightlifting facilities. Moreover, the variety of sports camps offered at IUPUI will draw between 2,000 and 3,000 youngsters this summer. The facility’s aquatics programs range from learn-to-swim classes for all age groups as well as fitness classes.

Can Carmel make it 27?

No need asking any graduated Carmel High School girls swimmer or diver if she holds fond memories of the IU Natatorium. The program has ruled the pool with a mind-numbing 26 consecutive team state championships, with Chris Plumb being the fifth ‘Hounds coach to take part in the streak.

Think about it. Even the youngest swimmers for the 1987 Carmel squad that got the ball rolling are now in their 40s.

The streak’s legend has become as much a part of the IU Natatorium as lane dividers. The Greyhounds, ranked No. 1 in the state, are expected to take care of business again today. Another Carmel celebration would gain ground on the national standard established by Punahou (Hawaii) High School winning 29 straight state championships from 1958-86.

Meanwhile, there are Johnson County swimmers and divers hoping to write their own special story with an elevated vantage point from the awards podium. Some have competed at the IU Natatorium before, others have not. It promises to be memorable either way.

“I don’t know if it’s the facility as much as it is the atmosphere of the meet. Because of that the kids are always excited to go there,” longtime Center Grove girls and boys swim coach Jim Todd said. “The Natatorium is one of the fastest pools in the world, so I’m sure the kids enjoy that, too.”

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