You'll have to excuse the UC swimming and diving teams if they are a little bit excited these days. After four years of traveling off campus to train and lacking the proper facilities to maintain a diving team, the Bearcats finally have a pool to call their own. The Keating Aquatics Center is named after Bill Keating, Sr., who was a Bearcat student-athlete (BBA 1950, JD 1950), member of the UC Athletic Hall of Fame, a recipient of the NCAA Silver Anniversary Medal, and a former Chairman of the Board of the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees. The aquatics center opened its doors in February as part of the grand opening of the UC Campus Recreation Center.
"It is hoped that this will become a home and that will bring people to our program," said head coach Monty Hopkins. "We can build off of that. I think that opening Varsity Village will get people excited and interested in UC."
Part of the $113 million Campus Recreation Center, the natatorium features an eight-lane, 50-meter swimming course with an integrated diving well. The pool contains 12,000 square feet of water surface and includes a moveable bulkhead that will provide a high degree of flexibility in training course configuration.
The wait to get into the new building has been difficult for Hopkins and the Bearcats. For the past four years, since the demolition of Laurence Hall, which contained the pool, UC's men's and women's teams have trained at St. Xavier High School, a 20-minute drive from campus. Campus buses shuttled the student athletes back and forth from school to practice, at least for a couple of years. The buses stopped running that route at the beginning of the year in 2006, so the coaches were forced to use university vans to transport the swimmers to and from St. Xavier.
"It was very difficult, because we didn't have a home," assistant coach Jaimi Armstrong said. "It affected team unity and, as a coach, it affected our time. We just didn't have enough time to be everywhere we needed to be."
Time was definitely at a premium. On any given day, a single two-hour practice session could take over three hours after waiting for and loading the buses and navigating rush hour traffic.
The entire team rarely, if ever, practiced together. There were often five practice times per day to accommodate the schedules of the student-athletes and the times available at the facility. The Bearcats were the low man on the totem pole at St. X, sharing the pool with high school gym classes and the Cincinnati Marlins Swimming Club.
The adverse effect of not having a home pool has been quite evident in recruiting as well as the development of the competitors. The Bearcats have had little depth over the last few years, and have seen several local prep swimmers leave the area. One of Cincinnati's most successful programs on a national level, the swimming and diving teams struggled to maintain that national image without a home. From 1988-2003, the Bearcats featured five Olympians, two NCAA champions, and brought home 30 All-America awards. Since 2003, just two student-athletes have qualified for the NCAA Championships and none made All-American honors. With all the changes happening around campus, Hopkins is optimistic that he and his staff will be able to turn things around.
"We're not in a position where we're number one on people's list," Hopkins said. "This four-year span has set us back for more than four years because of the recruiting cycle. I think Varsity Village and the whole concept of that will have a big impact."
Cincinnati now has a facility to be proud of. The Bearcats can host dual meets and invitationals. These events will bring additional exposure of the many new developments on the UC campus as well as the Bearcat swim program to countless area student-athletes and competitors.
"The difference between having our own pool and sharing a pool is obvious," senior Ann Degenstein said. "Here, everyone has their own lane. There is more room to spread out and train more effectively."
As the Bearcats transition into the new facility, the team also moves into the BIG EAST Conference, one of the nation's elite athletic leagues. The men's team placed fifth in its first BIG EAST Championships, held on Feb. 15-18, while the women's squad finished seventh of 11 schools.
There is much to be excited about these days on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The opening of the Keating Aquatics Center belies that fact. For a program so rich in tradition and excellence, the new facility will provide stability and opportunity.
"It's my hope that people will take pride in being affiliated with the University of Cincinnati and be excited about being the Cincinnati Bearcats," Hopkins said. "Let's get C-Paws up on the wall and let's get BIG EAST banners up on the wall. Let's make it look like a source of pride."
The swimming and diving program has waited and waited and the time has finally come. The Bearcats have a new home.