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Swim stadium full of success stories

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Swim Stadium has a history as deep as its own deepest end.

The 1932 Summer Olympics -- for which the now-public swim facility at the Exposition Park Intergenerational Community Center was built -- put Los Angeles on the world’s sports map.

At the stadium, future movie star Clarence “Buster” Crabbe took home the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle. A teenager named Eleanor Holm won the 100-meter backstroke. (A liquid other than water got her kicked off the 1936 Olympic team, after Holm, by then a married woman, sipped champagne aboard a ship en route to the Berlin Games.)

Behind the historic facade, freshly polished and restored, is a $30-million complex, a blend of 1930s style with 21st century state-of-the-art glass and steel architecture.

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The original stadium was built as the world tumbled deeper into depression and political tensions. Before Los Angeles stepped in to host the Games, the event itself was in jeopardy.

The city turned a smallish gathering, with only 40 nations and 1,500 athletes competing, into a festive summer respite from the harsh headlines of the day. It was also a reminder to the world of why the Games were important.

The Olympics were still an amateurs-only event, and as the official book of that 10th Olympiad noted, athletes were giving every effort “without hope of reward, other than the honor which they may bring to their country, to their sport and to themselves.”

On opening day, July 30, 1932, a 300-piece band marched into the Coliseum and struck up “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” There were cheers from the assembled 105,000 spectators, and thousands of doves circled overhead as they tried to reach the arena’s rim. The nation’s vice president, Charles Curtis, was delegated to open the Games. A 10-shot cannon salute was followed by the bleat of half a dozen trumpets. With that, the Games began.

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At the swim stadium next door, Japan won five of six gold medals in men’s swimming. One of Japan’s swimmers eclipsed the 100-meter freestyle record set in the 1928 Olympics by Johnny Weissmuller, who, like Crabbe, would go on to play Tarzan in films. Weissmuller, a spectator in 1932, jumped over a fence from the front row to watch his buddy Crabbe win the gold.

The Olympics seemed to create Tarzan stars; Eleanor Holm appeared as the leading lady in the 1938 film “Tarzan’s Revenge,” opposite 1936 decathlon gold medalist Glenn Morris.

Even though she bumped into a lane divider, American Helene Madison won the women’s 100-meter freestyle. Four days later, she anchored her team to first place in the 100-meter freestyle relay, knocking 9.5 seconds off the world record. She got her third gold medal in the 400-meter, and that night celebrated at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, dancing with actor Clark Gable.

After the Games ended, the swim stadium was opened to the public. In 1938, a teenager named Esther Williams -- on a synchronized swimming team known as the Mercury Mermaids -- entertained fans at a National Aquatic Show at the stadium. A year later, in the same pool, she broke the national record in the 100-meter breaststroke. Williams later popularized water ballet in MGM films -- none of them Tarzan movies.

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In August 1949, four years after the end of World War II, more than 25,000 paid to see Japanese swimmers Hironoshin Furuhashi and Shiro Hashizume set six new world records between them.

But that same year, Los Angeles-area swimmers began world dominance of the sport -- and the swim stadium was home base for their achievements.

In 1958, when Peter Daland became head swimming coach for USC, the swim stadium became “home pool” for the Trojans and for international meets sponsored by the Southern California Swimming Assn.

From the day it opened until 1970, 65 world records were set at the stadium. No other pool in the world has come close to that tally.

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But by the 1970s, it was showing its age.

For the 1984 Olympics, a new pool was built, and after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the swim stadium was closed down completely. Only graffiti taggers frequented it.

It didn’t take long for the neighborhood to recognize the need for a suitable pool and expanded recreational opportunities, and, in 1998, a nonprofit corporation was formed to raise money to make it happen.

The new complex opened in 2003 within the shell of the old swimming stadium and in the shadow of the Coliseum. The three-story recreation center has two basketball courts, weight and fitness rooms, a family pool, an outdoor amphitheater and a 50-meter competition pool where the lanes are paved, metaphorically, with gold.

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com


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