It was a decision repeated daily throughout the married world. Should we buy it? Can we afford it?
But for Harvard women’s swimming coach Stephanie Morawski and her husband Mike, the “it” wasn’t a new car or home. It was a pool, and not just any pool. The US Olympic Trials pool in which Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte competed last summer, the pool in which Missy Franklin became a teenage sensation, was for sale.
“I can tell you my husband and I were driving in Michigan on the way to my in-laws and he was like, ‘Let’s do it then,’ and I was . . . ’’ said Stephanie, ending her sentence with a gasp. “But it was well thought out.’’
Somewhere north of Traverse City in the summer of 2011, the decision was made to spend approximately $2 million to purchase the Myrtha 50-meter Olympic swimming pool. The down payment was made in September of that year, and the pool would be headed to Boston following the trials in Omaha last summer. The official owner would be Charles River Aquatics, the swim club founded by the Morawskis in 2005.
Their plans for the pool were simple — teach Boston-area children to swim. CRA would also provide pool time to groups such as Wounded Warriors, Horizons for Homeless Children, Special Olympics, and even a frustrated Massachusetts high school swim community whose championships have been limited by the availability of pools at MIT and Harvard.
“When you are as involved in swimming, and involved in this world for as long as I have been, and as long as my family has been, you start to feel that you want to give back,’’ said Stephanie, a Harvard graduate and for 16 years the Crimson women’s swimming coach. “It’s not just about making the fast swimmers faster. It’s sometimes also about getting more people learning how to swim.’’
“It’s about kids, and drown-proofing Boston,’’ said Mike. “For as much water as is around here, it’s amazing how many kids can’t swim. I can get behind the cause that we drown-proof as many kids as we can in this town.”
But today, roughly 10 months after the end of the trials July 2, the pool remains more than 1,400 miles from Boston. It sits in four ocean going storage containers in Omaha. The decision to buy the pool may have been well thought out, but finding a place to put it has been a challenge.
“I did think it would be a little easier, I really did, and I think my husband did, too,’’ said Stephanie Morawski. “Our initial meetings were really positive with some of the towns that we met with. One in particular said their town survey said the No. 1 thing they needed was a pool. That was nice to hear.
“I think where it comes down to for a lot of towns is the money piece. Because they want to know who’s going to pay for it. A lot of the towns are savvy enough to know that pools don’t make money, not the way they do it. So they’d rather have somebody else run it, somebody who has shown that they can run a facility and still not go into any type of debt.’’
The effort to find a site — or land partner, as Stephanie says — has been slow, but not without progress.
“There are so many possibilities out there,” said Mike. “We have people who are interested in the pool, we just have to find a spot. We’ve sat with mayors, we’ve sat with school headmasters. Everyone is interested. But land is hard around here. That’s the tricky part.”
And CRA wants the pool to be as close to Boston as possible.
“We could, if we went outside of 95, purchase land, put the pool in, we could start with a bubble over it, and then build up. That’s not what we want to do,” said Stephanie. “We would like to be in the Greater Boston area, right around here, to be able to target groups that we’d like to target. This is where the groups are that we want to help. We could put the pool out in Sudbury or someplace else, but that’s not what we want.’’
One of the driving forces for CRA is teaching more kids to swim, especially African-American children. In her office at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool, Morawski flips open her laptop and shows a reporter a feature done by NBC on Cullen Jones, the lone African-American on last summer’s US men’s Olympic swimming team. Jones, who won two silver medals in London, learned to swim only after he almost drowned in a waterpark pool when he was 5.
A 2010 study commissioned by USA Swimming and conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 70 percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have low or no swim ability, compared with 40 percent of Caucasian children. According to the study, parental fear is a major contributor to a child’s swimming ability.
“A lot of the children in Boston are afraid of the water,’’ said Marilyn Wriede, Stephanie’s mother and CRA’s executive director. “Standing in water up to their waist, they are terrified of the water. That is hard to see. We are on a mission to teach as many kids as we can.”
As director of special projects for CRA, Matthew McKay has been helping with the site search since March. McKay is a Belmont Hill graduate who swam for Harvard and graduated in 1994 with a concentration in economics. A career as a financial analyst in the research division of an investment bank gives him a different perspective on the challenge.
“I think there’s a whole education process that goes on, as well,” he said. “When we sit down with the Boys & Girls Club, they get it right away. Yes, we’re going to swim, wonderful. And for someone in the swimming community, yes, we’ll have a pool for high school races.
“But you go to someone who works in politics or controls the land, they say, why do we need a pool? You have to go back and educate them a little bit and say, all right, these are the community leaders who are interested in it. These are the benefits to the competitive swimming programs, as well as it creates jobs, and that takes time. That’s what we’re going through right now. Hopefully, once we actually really step on the gas to work with whatever site, it’s just an easier conversation.”
Charles River Aquatics has talked to numerous towns and land owners, and many of those discussions continue. As everyone involved with this has learned, discussions take time. And no one wants to put the pool in the wrong place.
“We want to make sure we are taking all the steps on our end to make sure that we are selecting the right land and right partner,” said Stephanie Morawski.
Money is also an issue, and thus the reference to the right “partner.” In addition to the pool, a building around it is needed. And parking. And access roads. The list goes on.
“If we’re lucky, we’ll keep it between $10-14 million. If we’re lucky,’’ said Stephanie. “We need money right now. CRA doesn’t have it. All the [CRA] money is going to pay for the pool. There are things I haven’t even thought about. There are so many other costs that are going to add up very quickly.”
In the Morawski home in Belmont, this has generated a few what-have-we-done moments.
“My husband has had a thousand of them,” said Stephanie. “I’m more of the optimist. I’m proud of him for making the decision. It will get in the ground. We’ll find the right land partner because that’s really what we need right now.’’
Labor of love
Charles River Aquatics is definitely a family affair. Stephanie Morawski is the voluntary aquatics consultant. Wriede is the executive director. Stephanie’s father, Peter, is in charge of the website and registrations. And Mike Morawski is the owner. But each does whatever needs to be done.
Mike is the former assistant dean at Milton Academy. Among his many responsibilities was overseeing the school’s community service projects. Community service may be the interest shared the most by Mike and his wife of 13-plus years.
When CRA was founded eight years ago, it had 39 students. Today, more than 1,600 people, mostly children, participate in learn-to-swim programs, as well as take private lessons and participate on the CRA team. CRA operates out of the Case Center at Boston University, and as good as the relationship has been, it’s always been a concern.
“Boston University has been absolutely wonderful,’’ said Stephanie. “But at some point you don’t control your own destiny and BU can any day walk in and say we’re going to fill this in and turn it into a multipurpose room. You don’t want that to happen.”
In addition, CRA is growing and needs more space. In January, CRA began a learn-to-swim program with the MATCH Charter School, located a short walk from the Case Center. CRA also has been working with Beacon Academy since 2007.
“The programming was maxed out,” said Stephanie.
At first, CRA hired a consultant to help find a solution. But it didn’t take long for the focus to shift to a new pool. The 2008 Olympic Trials pool was purchased by the Poseidon Swim Foundation in Virginia and was finally put in the ground last year. And it turns out, the 2012 pool was a bargain.
“Because the Olympic pool was used you could get it for the same price as a new pool,” said Stephanie.
“I’m from Michigan, we repurpose everything,” said Mike with a laugh.
And an Olympic pool has cachet.
“You can say Michael swam in it, Janet Evans had her comeback in it, Missy, Ryan . . . it’s a special pool,” said Stephanie.
She should know. Stephanie brought seven of her swimmers to the trials, and one, Courtney Otto, finished ninth in the 200 butterfly. Morawski’s phone is filled with pictures of the pool, right down to the filtration system.
Unlike the average in-ground backyard pool, Myrtha competition pools are made to be portable, including the 2012 Trials pool that holds roughly 760,000 gallons of water. It’s a free-standing, stainless steel modular system with roughly 150 panels.
“Everything is one big erector set,” said John Ireland, Myrtha’s senior engineer and director of technical services, as well as a UMass graduate. “It’s quite complex.”
Manufactured in Italy, there’s no component of a Myrtha pool that you can’t pick up and carry through a door. In addition, it’s adjustable, meaning CRA can make one end shallower to allow for lessons.
If Stephanie and Mike Morawski and their family are concerned about the future, they don’t show it.
“I know it’s going to work,” said Stephanie. “We just need to make sure the program doesn’t go under, to put it in swimming terms. We just want to cover our costs. We’re not going to become millionaires any time soon, that’s for sure. It will be a great story when it’s in the ground.”
And when it is, Stephanie has plans for a vial of pool water she saved from the Olympic Trials. She says she may pour it back into the pool at the grand opening.
If they can just find a place to put it.