Courtesy of Karl Hamouche
In 10 years the Iowa City Field House pool would have celebrated its 100th birthday, but a recent decision will see the historic pool renovated and replaced by exercise equipment. And that’s ok, it is time to move on to bigger and better things, and almost a 100 years ago the Field House pool was the biggest and best, literally. That’s why we are going to talk about it for a minute.
Never heard of the Iowa City Field House Pool? She is history and character wrapped into one and this pool has left its mark on all swimmers. Built in 1927, it was the largest pool in the world, stretching out to 50 yards. Yes… 50 YARDS, and 17 feet deep on the diving end to catch divers going off the nine meter board (nope…not the 10 meter, only 9). In today’s numbers this pool is a little shy of a dozen, but in 1927 it was state of the art.
But being a state of the art facility isn’t enough to get you fame, you need to make an impact on swimming itself. In 1934 the head coach at the time, David Armbruster, began developing a method to improve breastroke where swimmers would launch their arms out of the water and recover them through the air. He called it “butterfly.” The next year, an Iowa swimmer named Jack Sieg invented an underwater kicking style to impress people at the annual “Dolphin Show” by swimming the length of the pool underwater. He undulated his body, and kicked with both legs at the same time. He called it the “Dolphin fishtail kick.” Put together, David and Jack invented what we now know as butterfly, and in 1954, it was adopted by FINA as an official stand-alone stroke due to the fact every breastroker in the world now swam “butterfly”.
That’s right, you can blame every hard work out, punishment set and iconic swimming poster on the Field House.
Enough about history, how about some character. We could talk about how swimmer Jock Mahoney would open a trap door in the ceiling and dive into the pool, later using his stuntman talents in Hollywood and playing the original Tarzan. We could mention that the bulkhead is so old it takes a scuba diver to move it, not to mention its 1.5 yard width eats up some of the 50 yard pool, splitting it into a 25 yard and 23.5 yard pool. Or we could spend time on the finicky air conditioner that was either all on or all off, and the swimming and diving coaches would argue about the best temperature and lock up the controls to get the temperature they wanted.
All great memories I’m sure, but I want to talk about my favorite memory. Ever since the 69 million dollar CRWC Natatorium was built across the street in 2010, every swim meet from inter-squads to NCAA Champs was held at the new fancy pool. Except the one year where a glass divider shattered for no reason and fell in the pool, one week before our three day state meet. The CRWC had to be drained, but who was going to host our meet and come to our rescue?
THE FIELD HOUSE!
And it was the best swim meet I’d ever coached at. The hard walls and cathedral windows created massive echoes, multiplying the voice of the crowd and cheering teams. The 17 foot deep pool ate up the waves and made for some fast swimming and multiple state records. And the huge record boards with the names of Olympians and world record holders stood over us as if to serve as inspiration. As far as I know, that was that last swim meet held at the Field House.
While I’d love to fight for the pool to stick around (like it did in 2009), even I know it’s time to move on and the CRWC Natatorium is a worthy replacement, already hosting some of the biggest and fastest meets in the nation. Hopefully, in 90 some years we will be replacing it with the next legend in swimming and writing a eulogy full of the history and character of the CRWC.
Founder of Swim Smart, co-inventor of the Squeezline, author of The Biology of Swimming and finishing his last year of medical school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.