July 14, 2008

Making Waves: High-Tech Aquatic Center Puts Some Flash in the Splash

By Eric Ferreri, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jul. 14--CARY -- The Triangle Aquatic Center has an electronic timing system and scoreboard, Olympic-style starting blocks, bleachers, pro shop and concession stands -- everything a budding swimmer could possibly desire.

So what's 11-year-old Petch Lamson's favorite feature?

"The ceiling," Petch said Sunday morning before competing in the Greater Raleigh Swimming Championships. "I swim backstroke, so I can tell if I'm going straight by looking at the ceiling."

The $25 million, 72,000-square-foot aquatics center, a nonprofit venture built with private money, opened last year adjacent to Cary Towne Center. For many of the estimated 1,200 young people who swam Sunday, this high-tech facility was their first chance to compete indoors.

In the lobby, they could measure themselves against Olympic star Michael Phelps, whose outline and massive arm span are displayed against a window. At the pool, they can channel him as well, diving in, swimming like mad, touching the pad at the end of the race and poking a head up to gaze at their name and recorded time up on the big screen.

"I like the fact that they show your name," said Spencer Pope, 9, who competed with the Quail Hollow Swim and Tennis Club. "It's neat that it's up there."

Spencer's dad, David, was one of many parents -- veterans of meets at so many neighborhood pools -- to see another benefit to the large indoor facility.

"The biggest plus is that you're not outside in the heat," David Pope said. "It's better for the swimmers and the parents."

If Sunday was any indication, the swim business is booming. The Cary meet was one of two big ones Sunday; the other was held at the Sunset Ridge Swim Club in Holly Springs.

The Cary meet was a maelstrom. The aquatics center was jammed; the pool deck buzzed with the pitter-patter of bare feet as pint-sized swimmers met their groups, warmed up, swam, toweled off and headed to the concession stand for a hot pretzel or a tray of nachos. They represented neighborhoods, many hanging their personalized flags declaring themselves members of the Hedingham Sharks, Seven Oaks Marlins, Wendell Waves or Greystone Gators.

In the stands, parents craned their necks to see their child, checked and double-checked their programs, sipped coffee and tinkered with their digital cameras. One mother kicked off her flip-flops to stand on her seat for a better camera shot; nearby, a father valiantly rolled up his program in a futile attempt to direct his cheers so that his child would actually hear them. Good luck; with two pools running heats concurrently, the center was a humid cacophony.

Clarence Inscore, whose 5-year-old daughter, Janie, was competing, said the professional setting took some adjusting to.

"I hate being that far from the kids," said Inscore, who, like other parents, said they were more used to the informal environment of a neighborhood pool, where parents can stand anywhere to watch. "You're a long way away. But you can see everything."

Bob Sigmon, president of the New Wave Swim team, which hosted the event, said his organization promotes swimming for its health benefits to youngsters and hopes the high-tech aquatics center will help spur interest in a way that the traditional outdoor pool cannot.

"The end result is to try to recruit young athletes," Sigmon said. "If we can get these kids to be dazzled -- it's the flash factor -- then we can recruit swimmers."

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