Swim clubs, community jump in to revitalize Kona Aquatic Center
For four years, swimmers with Kona Aquatics and Kona Dolphins have not been able to host meets at their home Kona Aquatic Center because of starting blocks that had been “condemned.”
The swimmers have had to travel to pools around the county and off-island for all their competitions — and they have not had been able to practice with starting blocks, which are platforms used by swimmers to dive into the pool to start races.
But after a community effort, the West Hawaiʻi community pool is back to competing standards with the recent installment of eight new starting blocks.
“It should’ve happened years ago,” said 17-year-old senior Nolan Morton, a swimmer for 12 years with Kona Aquatics and a member of the Kealakehe High School swim team.
But he said he is grateful to the parents, coaches and sponsors who worked together for the past 10 months to raise funds and make the repairs happen: “We wouldn’t be in the pool if it weren’t for them.”
Donations from the Ironman Foundation and the Kasser Family Foundation — totaling $250,000 — enabled the clubs to replace the starting blocks and pour new concrete for a portion of the pool deck at the Kona Aquatic Center, one of nine county pools.
“With the needed repairs we were very happy that the swim teams were able to help out with this,” said Hawaiʻi County Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina. “We really count of the public-private partnerships to shore up our budget for repairs of these facilities. We’d be in dire straights if it weren’t for the volunteers.”
Messina said a majority of the county’s Parks and Recreation facilities are aging, with pools being the most expensive facilities on the island. About $3 million of the Parks and Recreation’s budget goes toward keeping the county’s public pools open. It includes salary and wages for the employees.
Natalie Posey, parent of two swimmers for the Kona Dolphins, said the platforms were constantly being moved on and off the pool deck, which eventually led to them not being able to be secured in place, making them unsafe.
Dave Gibson, head swim coach of Kona Aquatics and president of the Kona Aquatics Swim Club, took over leadership of the club just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. As the months passed, he said there was no plan in place by the county to fix or replace the blocks.
“For swim competitions you have to have starting blocks,” Gibson said. “[The swimmers] couldn’t have meets at their home on the westside of Hawaiʻi.”
Over the past few years, Gibson said the first time some of the teen swimmers stepped foot on a starting block was during a meet at a different pool.
Morton said practicing regularly on the starting blocks now will help the Kona swimmers be on equal footing with other swimmers in the country.
Posey said the pool became in complete disrepair around the pandemic: “The county dropped the ball in keeping up with the facilities.”
Posey helped lead the charge in working with the county to find ways to get repairs done to the pool and to secure more practice time for the competitive swimmers.
Posey went directly to Mayor Mitch Roth about getting more hours at the pool for the club swimmers. Pre-pandemic, clubs practiced five days a week at the Kona pool. It dropped down to three days a week but was recently brought back to four days a week.
Posey said there is a plan to add a fifth day back into the schedule in January.
“Kona has some incredible athletes in it,” she said. “I truly believe that we as a community should be proud of where we are and have safe facilities for our kids to go to. I believe in my heart that this pool can be a beacon in our society.”
Messina said a lifeguard shortage has made it difficult to keep all county pools open to accommodate all swimmers. His goal is get back to pre-pandemic staffing levels with the nine county pools being open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“Pools aren’t just for teams,” Messina said. “We have a lot of different programs competing for time and use at our pools. Our goal is to ensure fair and equal time for groups wanting to use that facility.”
Posey said the club coaches and parents are now working to raise funds for shade over the bleachers, which also are deteriorating. They’re also looking at a possible shade over the keiki pool and a cooling system to bring the water temperature down in the lap pool.
Posey said the goal was to hold a meet at the Kona pool before the year ended. It didn’t happen, but the Dolphins and Aquatics held an inter-club meet using the new starting blocks. A USA Swimming sanctioned meet is scheduled for Feb. 8.
For Morton, the Kona pool has been a huge part of his life, and now he has offers to swim for universities in California, Washington State and New York City.
“A lot of scholarship money and opportunities were built from this pool specifically,” Morton said. “Without this pool I don’t know where I’d be, opportunity wise.”