It took 60 years, but Scarborough Swim Club finally has a home pool.
And what a pool.
By 6 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, both Olympic-size tanks in the new Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre had lanes full of splashing swimmers — the SCAR club in one, Canada’s junior national team in the other.
“It’s amazing,” said 11 year-old Griffin Lajoie, who lives in the Beach, as do about a third of SCAR’s 280 swimmers.
“I know there’s going to be like, really high-end swimmers here.”
Head coach Darren Ward said training beside some of Canada’s top swimmers is just one of many benefits of the Pan Am centre, which opened Sept. 2 at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.
“It’s a world-class facility, so you think world class,” said Ward. “You’re not in a high school pool anymore.”
The $205-million centre houses a national sports institute, CISO, which runs athletes’ workshops on diet, sleep, and exercise physiology. It also has a fitness centre, a 200-metre running track, four gyms, and seats for 6,500 fans, not to mention a towering climbing wall that greets the swimmers every time they take the pool stairs.
Ward, who competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, said Canada has a huge number of competitive swimmers — 17,000 in Ontario alone.
Although it is trending upwards, the country has had some lean years, medal-wise. Still, watching the juniors train one pool over, Ward saw the beginning of a rebound.
“Canada’s been struggling, but there’s tons and tons of talent in the age-group ranks,” he said.
“Four, five, six years down the road, these will probably be some of your Olympians, right here.”
Given a few more years than that and the same may be true of Scarborough Swim Club, where three-quarters of the swimmers are 12 or younger.
“We’ve got a long haul, but we have a huge base,” said Ward.
Since it started in 1954, the non-profit, parent-run club has been home to such Olympian swimmers as Carol Klimpel and Angela Coughlan, as well as marathon queen Cindy Nicholas, who made 19 crossings of the English Channel. But in all that time, the club never had a home pool.
Until recently, swimmers in the club’s pre-competitive, competitive and Masters programs had to shuttle between pools at five local high schools.
Some are so dimly lit, one club member called them “dungeon-y.”
While SCAR will continue using the pool at R.H. King Academy, swim meets and most training will move to the Pan Am centre.
It’s a welcome change for club manager Chris Prendergrast.
Three years ago, SCAR hosted a weekend meet in an older high school. Halfway through Saturday, the toilet in the boys’ change room failed – parent marshalls spent the rest of the meet herding people in and out of the girls’, the only working toilet they could use.
“It was brutal,” said Prendergrast, laughing.
Even when everything works, school pools are shut for Christmas, March Break and summer holidays.
Now, after hosting a fun “Spookfest” meet last weekend, SCAR is preparing a May invitational that Prendergrast imagines as a kind of “mini-Pan Am.” Clubs from Calgary, Quebec’s Gaspé region, and the US have all said they’re keen.
Besides better facilities, club president Carolyn Howard said having a home pool brings the club together.
“It’s great for the younger kids to see the older ones swim,” said Howard, whose oldest daughter Madeleine now swims for Western University and will race the 2016 Olympic trials, while her son and youngest daughter still swim with SCAR.
Back when Madeleine was a student Malvern Collegiate, Howard said half her swimmer friends went to SCAR, the other half to Toronto Swim Club.
“The Beach is a war zone,” joked Prendergrast, who also lives in the area. “We’re in competition with TSC downtown.”
“Now we’ve got the best facility in Canada,” he added. “So we expect to see more kids coming our way instead of going downtown at 5 o’clock.”
Like Griffin Lajoie, fellow 11-year old SCAR swimmer Maya Ellis enjoys competing – she and Lajoie are at the top of their age group in Ontario, and among the top 20 in Canada.
But asked why she swims, Ellis said it’s not all about competition.
“It’s really fun,” she said, shortly after singing ‘happy birthday’ for a friend on the pool deck.
“I like the racing, and I like hanging out with my teammates.”