By Grayson Meckfessel
During the spring of 2020, Tulane University closed its campus aquatic center, the Natatorium, with plans to renovate the facility and reopen by that fall. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the project was on par with meeting its deadline. However, the COVID-19 pandemic would soon impose uncertainties both about the future of the Natatorium and the university. As students were sent home for the semester, Tulane deferred to the guidance of public health experts and halted renovations on all projects. Thus began a three-year saga of inaction amid outcries of frustration from community organizations.
Andrew Gontko, a senior studying chemical engineering, is the acting president of the Tulane Swim Club. Having served on both the swim and water polo clubs’ executive boards since the fall of 2021, he offered a holistic perspective on the evolution of the issue.
“It started because of COVID… they closed down the pool because everyone was leaving campus, which made sense… But then they later said that they got some complaints from previous swimmers who got cuts on the pool, so now it’s not just renovations, the pool’s a safety hazard. After that, they said they just didn’t have the money. And then nothing happened.” According to Gontko, for the next two years, groups who depended on the Natatorium (Tulane Swim Club, Tulane Water Polo Club, Swim for Success, Tulane varsity swimming, local high schools, etc.) would ask for updates on the pool’s construction and be met with vague answers along the lines of ‘we’re still in the planning phase’.
After two years of haggling with administration, Gontko asserted “you could flip a coin and they’re gonna give you a different reason that the pool is closed… it would be one thing if they said ‘hey we don’t have the money’ or like ‘it’s not gonna be ready until fall 2024’ but they just keep setting deadlines and just pushing them off.” Having thought the Natatorium would be done before his sophomore year, Andy is graduating this semester.
Despite efforts to contact administrators about the true explanation for the renovation’s three-year extension, no empirical cause has been confirmed. However, the effects have been tangible. All water-dependent extracurriculars at Tulane have had to look elsewhere to find locations that fit their needs.
A prime example includes the Tulane varsity women’s swim team who has had to practice at locations such as the Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Avenue in absence of a training facility. Being a division one athlete is hard enough, let alone having to spend hours transporting yourself to and from an off-campus pool. The strain this inflicts is unequivocal. Consider that the recommended minimum depth for a 25-yard competition pool is six feet (as a matter of diving safety), according to the USA Swimming 2023 rule book. “The maximum depth of the JCC is about five feet” Gontko affirmed. One can imagine the frustration of watching the university champion the success of sports like the men’s football team who just won the Cotton Bowl Classic while forcing the division one girls’ team to practice at a facility that cannot meet their basic needs.
“It’s a debilitating situation also when you think about all of the people who depend on sports, like swimming, for a social scene. They come to Tulane thinking they’ll have that outlet but then are forced to look elsewhere.” Gontko makes a point that college students are often in a fragile era of transition. When you remove someone’s default conduit of socializing, they go searching in unhealthy places for equivalents, such as partying. Had the communication from the university been less ambiguous, many of these detriments could have been avoided or at least mediated.
“My advice to anyone who will continue this fight in the future is to just focus on what you can control. At the end of the day, whatever you can’t control is beyond you.” Though construction has officially begun on the pool, whether fall of 2023 will be the final deadline is anyone’s guess.