A City’s Olympic-Size Dream

Times Staff Writer

A lot of civic hope is hovering over two plastic portable pools in a downtown Long Beach parking lot.

Over the next month, 1,000 of the world’s best swimmers and water polo players will glide through the 1.4-million gallons of chlorinated water they hold -- nine feet above ground. Assembled beside the Long Beach Arena and flanked by grandstands, one is a practice pool, and the other will be used for the U.S. Olympic swim trials, starting July 7.

Sports boosters in this city of 471,000 believe the trials and the success of the first Long Beach Aquatic Festival will buoy a campaign for a permanent world-class pool.

Landing the swim trials was a coup for Long Beach and Los Angeles sports boosters, who say Southern California needs an aquatic center to accommodate the interest that has mushroomed nationally but long existed here.


One-third of the country’s water polo players live in Southern California, said Rich Foster, president of the Long Beach Sports Council and of USA Water Polo, the national governing body for the sport outside of scholastic competition.

About 115,000 visitors are expected to spend $15 million to $20 million in the city during the six-week festival, with the trials as its centerpiece, said Steve Goodling, president of the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Boosters of a permanent pool say those revenue estimates could help sell the idea of constructing an aquatic center near the Long Beach Convention Center.

“Long Beach is already a powerhouse for water polo and swimming,” said Foster, a Seal Beach resident and lawyer whose son competed in both sports at Wilson High School in Long Beach, as he did.

Foster is a political leader in several national aquatic organizations and, more locally, is a member of what he jokingly refers to as “the water polo mafia.” It is a distinct social circle, like Little League or gymnastics in other cities. He is also president of the 30-member Long Beach Sports Council, formed two years ago by the visitors bureau to woo athletic events.

The sports councils of Long Beach and Los Angeles submitted a winning bid with USA Swimming, the national governing body that decides which community hosts trials.

USA Swimming Executive Director Chris Wielgus said Long Beach was chosen for several reasons. For one, it is in the second-largest media market in the world.

The city was also attractive because it has a deep involvement in water sports and because officials like Foster understand the need to create pool conditions similar to those that will be found at the Olympics in Athens.


“Another community might have offered more money, made more promises to bring the event to, say, Youngstown, Ohio,” Wielgus added. “But this is our most important domestic event in four years, and a ... rejuvenated Long Beach is a place where our sport can be showcased, where it can be a great show.”

And everyone involved, including corporate sponsors, saw the value of having 19 million people within driving distance of the venue, making it easier to fill the 10,000 bleacher and box seats.

Already, 12,000 hotel room nights have been booked, visitors bureau officials said.

NBC will broadcast four hours of competition -- two in prime time -- with the network’s Olympic host, Bob Costas, anchoring various trials from the Long Beach pool deck.


“We’re building him a special desk, so the Queen Mary and the harbor will be visible behind him,” Goodling said. “NBC will also have cameras showing the shoreline. That is just millions in free advertising right there.”

“The nation,” Goodling said, “is going to rediscover Long Beach again. We will be ready.”

Casting itself as a center for aquatics would not be a great reach for the state’s fifth-largest city, which hosted the 1976 U.S. swim trials at its indoor, now-outdated Belmont pool.

As a perennial California Interscholastic Federation finalist, Wilson High could attract 5,000 spectators to championship games at the Belmont pool, Foster said, but only 3,500 people can fit into its bleachers, which have restricted views of the pool.


Foster and the sports council would seek to have the same kind of pool installed permanently downtown, near the Convention Center. But because such a facility is far from being built and would require City Council approval, the twin Olympic trial pools already have been sold.

The pools were shipped from Italy in packable pieces.

It took a work crew nearly a month to assemble the pools, and the Long Beach Fire Department took eight to nine hours to fill them.

After the U.S. Olympic swim trials are completed July 14, the pools will be shipped to their new homes.


The city of Yucaipa has purchased one pool, and an aquatic club in a Newark, N.J., suburb, has bought the other.