CHAMPAIGN — Julia Wilson’s senior season as a Champaign Central swimmer has been an interesting one, to say the least.
It’s best summed up by a concern Wilson carried through early October — after the Maroons already had eight meets under their collective belt.
“I thought we were going to go the whole season without a pool,” she remembers thinking.
That has proven not to be the case, and things are now OK at the pool that Unit 4’s two high schools share at Centennial.
Yet the athletes who most need the facility aren’t far removed from a frustrating period in which practice locations were uncertain and their home base felt like anything but as referendum-related construction dragged past the district’s planned end date.
“It was very discouraging,” said Wilson, one of three seniors on the Maroons’ roster. “It was my last year, and I kind of wanted a sliver of a chance of going to state.”
Wilson and her teammates still possess that opportunity — during the Nov. 16 sectional meet at Urbana High School.
The Central and Centennial girls just didn’t have the easiest means of preparation prior to their pool being available for use on Oct. 7.
Unit 4 spokesman David Brauer told News-Gazette Media that Aug. 15 was the initial targeted date for the conclusion of pool construction, part of $74.2 million worth of renovations and expansion happening at Centennial.
“Delays prevented achieving that goal despite attempts to expedite work as much as possible,” Brauer said.
There were multiple stumbling blocks.
The first involved the Illinois Department of Public Health’s permit process taking roughly triple the time Brauer said usually is required, slowing the acquisition of construction materials and interrupting the work process.
Then there were delays in demolition as a result of the discovery that “the pool slab was thicker than expected,” as well as “an infiltration of groundwater” in the pool that necessitated 24-hour use of a sump pump for drainage.
“Flooring manufacturer challenges and unforeseen permit requirements for chemical exhaust took additional time,” Brauer said. “Crews attempted to expedite as much as possible to have the pool ready in time for the Central versus Centennial meet (on Sept. 24), but it was not possible.”
Brauer also said “the August turnover date would have been met” if “the permitting process (had) been shorter and had the team not faced many of the other challenges.”
'It was a mess'
Even so, swimmers and divers who use Unit 4 Pool were left disappointed at numerous stages before they could get in the water there Oct. 7 — nearly two months after the IHSA girls’ season started.
“Our girls are kind of fed up with it, as they should be,” Central Coach Katie VanHootegem said prior to the Maroons’ first contest at Unit 4 Pool on Oct. 12 against Urbana Uni High. “Nobody wants to deal with that.”
Both VanHootegem and Wilson said the return to Unit 4 Pool wasn’t all that smooth, either.
“We got in (Oct. 7) after school, and literally the only thing that was done was there was water in the pool,” VanHootegem said. “Lane lines didn’t fit. We didn’t have flags. There was nothing set up. There was no pace clock. There was nothing.”
“There were still ladders and tools sitting out,” Wilson added. “It was a mess.”
Brauer said “the project team is not aware of tools being left behind that could have been a safety concern,” though he acknowledged some devices “such as a lift (and) drills ... might have been on the deck.”
During the Central-Uni High meet, a pair of lifts were located along separate walls inside the facility. Other construction materials sat directly outside in the parking lot entrance to the pool, and the timing scoreboard wasn’t functional.
Parents pitch in
When the Twin City Meet rolled around 10 days later, only one lift remained in the building and the materials outside were removed. The scoreboard also was back in working order.
The breaking point came with the realization that the starting blocks weren’t installed the day the pool reopened for activity.
That led to Centennial and Uni High contesting an event the following afternoon in which athletes dove directly off the floor while times were kept by hand.
“It finally took (Chargers coach Courtney Louret and I) telling (athletes’) parents, ‘OK, we need you to get involved at this point,’” VanHootegem said. “We walked in Friday, and there were some people working and getting stuff done.”
“We had a person qualify for state last year,” Wilson added, “and I feel that having to deal with these conditions months into our season ... was difficult.”
Various locations — Indian Acres Swim Club, Sholem Aquatic Center, Champaign Country Club and the Champaign County YMCA — hosted affected athletes for practices before Unit 4 Pool reopened.
“We’re grateful for it,” VanHootegem said. “But, of course, we want to be back in our home pool, especially when we’ve been out for eight weeks not even getting the amount of practice time we” need.
Visible changes at Unit 4 Pool include new lighting overhead and the removal of a lip in the floor surrounding the pool’s edge. Other alterations, according to VanHootegem, were made to the pool’s heater, pumps and filtration system.
More construction still is on deck, with Brauer saying re-grouting work is slated on the pool floor for summer 2020.
Swimmers, divers and coaches have expressed appreciation for these changes.
At the same time, they say, it’s hard to ignore simultaneous referendum matters faring much better than theirs. Brauer noted as much in the Sept. 13 News-Gazette, saying: “Unit 4 building projects are on schedule with the exception of the Central High School swimming pool.”
“It shows how just historically in Unit 4, I feel like, swimming is very much overlooked,” Wilson said. “This is a sport that shouldn’t die out because we have improper facilities.”