A Tidal Wave of Opportunity: Liberty University Natatorium

The year was 1971. A visionary Pastor named Jerry Falwell stood on snow-covered ground and announced to the world his dream to create a unique university for Christian young people, one that would be for Evangelicals what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons. It would not, he said, be just another Bible college.

The dream was for excellence in all areas-Academics, Arts, and elite-level Division I Athletics, all while maintaining the Christian foundation on which the school would be built. And then, he went to work. With relentless vigor, selfless sacrifice, a few helping hands along the way, and a heavy dose of unwavering, unyielding faith, Jerry Falwell built Liberty from that frozen ground up, leading the school until his passing in 2007. While he did not live to see the unprecedented growth Liberty has experienced in recent years, he planted the seeds. Those roots are now bearing the fruit of his dedication and sacrifice to the vision that God laid upon his heart so many years ago.

Unwavering Commitment

That unwavering commitment to providing world-class facilities for academics, athletics, and recreation was certainly not lost on Dr. Falwell’s successor, his son, Jerry Falwell Jr. Under President Falwell’s leadership, Liberty has embarked on a $500 Million campus-wide renovation. Just a few of the many new buildings include a College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Jerry Falwell Library, several new high-rise residence halls, the state-of-the- art Center for Music and the Worship Arts, the Science Hall, the Montview Student Union, and the 275-foot-tall Freedom Tower, which will house the Rawlings School of Divinity, as well as a restaurant and other amenities for the student body.

New athletic facilities include an indoor football practice field, the Academic & Performance Center featuring a new Olympic sports weight room and a home for our Department of Academic Affairs for Athletics, a renovation to the existing LaHaye Ice Center, a basketball practice facility and weight room combination, and a new indoor track. As the head swimming & diving coach here at Liberty, I am blessed to have a small part in the action, as we announced in May that we would be adding a state-of-the-art, 75,000-square-foot natatorium to the indoor track facility, with an expected completion date of July, 2017. And what a blessing it will be. Every swimming coach dreams of one day having the opportunity to help plan and build a new aquatics center, and I am living the dream here at LU.

Located beneath the LU monogram at the base of the mountain, the facility will feature a nine-lane, deep-water 50-meter competition pool with a bulkhead and a separate 17-foot-deep diving well. The diving well includes 1 and 3 meter springboards and a complete tower setup featuring 1, 3, 5, 7.5, and 10-meter platforms. Similar to the adjacent track, it will be equipped to host regional, state and national meets for high school, collegiate, YMCA and USA Swimming programs, as well as offer training opportunities for professional athletes.

The consistent depth (eight feet) reduces turbulence underwater while an overflow gutter system drains, rather than rebounds, waves off the pool’s edges. The state-of-the-EPIC’s Wideck complements open concept art lane line dividers spin to dissipate energy created by swimmers. At 75,000 square feet, the natatorium will be much larger than the current LaHaye Aquatics Center pool, which will continue to be used for recreational purposes.

Unique Features

Several unique features will allow this facility to provide a competition atmosphere for athletes and spectators that will be unrivaled in all of college swimming. A barreled roof that slopes down to the seating area will channel the crowd noise to the pool below, and the 1,232 seats are arranged in a three-sided, bowl configuration around the 25-yard racing course that will make the 1,200 seem as though 20,000 fans are at the meet. Plenty of windows will allow for natural light, and the pool will feature the latest technology from Paddock Industries to ensure the highest levels of air and water quality for athletes and spectators.

Furthermore, a permanent “ready room” for top-8 finalists at big meets will be located on the deck directly below the bowl seating, allowing the finalists to walk out to the cheers of the crowd before the race. Adding to the uniqueness of this facility, it will have the space to provide 980 parking spots and a dedicated bus load/unloading zone adjacent to the general locker rooms. This will certainly add to the experience for both athletes and spectators.

The combination of the bowl seating configuration and the ready room has been a dream of mine for quite some time, and I am ecstatic that the architects were able to make it work within the footprint of the building. The overwhelming majority of pools across the country are built with seating on just one side of the competition course and do not feature a ready room. This has been the industry standard for years. I have always wished that swimmers, divers, and water polo players could experience what football and basketball players have come to expect on a regular basis-crowd noise from at least three sides of the venue, and the ability to “run out of the tunnel” so to speak, to the cheers of the spectators. Aquatic athletes will now have such an experience here at Liberty. It will be an extremely loud, raucous environment for elite-level meets, and I am certain that all who experience it will find it the single best competition experience in the entire country.

A Multi-Use Facility

The facility will have multiple uses. Liberty’s Student Activities and Intramural Sports programs will be able to host events, and students taking kinesiology classes in swimming will be able to walk to the pool from a “wet classroom” located on the deck with drains in the floor. The pool will also be available to outside organizations, from high school to community club programs, giving youth-to masters-level swimmers a chance to train, compete, and play in the new facility. It will also be used for Learn to Swim classes and training in SCUBA diving, lifeguard skills, and first responder water rescue.

The 25-yard wide pool can be divided into 20 lanes for short-course training, with an additional eight lanes in the diving well, allowing multiple teams to practice at the same time. With its proximity to the track, it will be able to host indoor triathlons as well. The facility will also feature an Endless Pool that will double as a hot tub for the divers. The Endless Pool will allow our club triathlon team to train at competition distances without stopping at a wall, and this will also benefit the team tremendously during the winter months when outdoor lake swimming is not possible.

The entire natatorium and indoor track complex will share a 6,554-square-foot weight room and 2,400-square-foot training room that includes a 1,000-square-foot hydro room with two plunge pools kept at 57 degrees. The pool will also feature a smaller, 1,300 square foot weight room right off the deck, allowing for in and out of water circuit training that will benefit both the club and NCAA programs. There will also be a media station wired for live broadcasts of meets and a juice bar/smoothie station to provide student-athletes with protein shakes after practice and competitions.

This will truly be a top notch facility and the many unique features make for what I believe will be one of the best training and competition venues in the country. It takes a village to build a pool this special, and this project is the result of what can happen when recreation, athletics, academics, and the upper levels of administration work together under the umbrella of a common vision and mission.

About the Author
Jake Shellenberger is the first ever Head Swimming & Diving Coach at Liberty University, a position he has held since the university started the program. A two-time CCSA Coach of the Year, in six years of program history, Shellenberger has guided the Lady Flames to a 63-26 dual-meet record.