Favorite Pools: Andy Ross Soaks Up The Sun at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatic Center

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The Woollett Aquatic Center in all its glory. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Favorite Pools. What are yours? As the swimming-less summer of 2020 draws on, the team at Swimming World will take a look at some of the great pools we love the most, why and what makes them so special. We’d like you to join in the fun and memories with your own suggestions, either by leaving a comment or sending us a picture you took of the venue you’ve chosen along with up to 300 words on why the place is one of your favorites: editorial@swimmingworld.com

Today: Andy Ross on the wonders of Irvine’s Woollett Aquatic Center 

Is there anything better than swimming outside? Don’t tell 9-year-old me, but swimming outdoors on a warm summer day just hits differently. There are plenty of wonderful outdoor pools to choose from in my life – the Hall of Fame Aquatic Center in Fort Lauderdale, the rock quarry in Louisville, and the Northside Aquatic Center in San Antonio. But the Woollett Aquatic Center in Irvine, California has to take the cake as one of my favorite pools I’ve ever swum in.

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The Woollett Aquatic Center the day before the 2013 Junior Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Andy Ross

In the summer of 2013, my club team had a goal to send as many people to junior nationals as we could. The summer before, the meet was in Indianapolis, a pool we had swum in many times before. “The Nat” is one of the best facilities in the country and on my Mt. Rushmore of pools, but when qualifying for Junior Nationals, we wanted to go somewhere we had never been. And in 2013, the destination was Irvine, California.

Long story short, my club team qualified five people to the meet that summer including yours truly. The excitement of qualifying was more about going to the state of California and swimming outside rather than being at the meet itself. This was evident by the fact that the first day we were on deck for warm-ups we took numerous pictures of just the pool and not once did we take a group photo of the five of us in front of the pool.

Being from Indiana, there was something so special about being able to travel all the way to California for a national-level meet and get a chance to get tan while doing so. And when we got our first looks at the pool, the blue and white lane lines mixed with the blue water and the sunshine, it was truly a beautiful sight.

I hardly remember my races at that meet, except for the fact I went out way too fast in my 200 breast heat and died pretty badly on the last 50. However, I really just remember how proud I felt to be walking on that deck. I had qualified to swim in a national level meet and was swimming in a facility where many great swimmers had swum like Jason Lezak and Jessica Hardy. Duel in the Pool, Pan Pacs and US Nationals had all been held at that pool, and as a huge swimminig fan, it was an honor to be swimming at a meet in that facility. That meet was also particularly stacked with future Olympic talent like Caeleb Dressel and Gunnar Bentz and it was such an important experience in my own swimming career to reflect on and think “yes, I swam at that meet.”

My Favorite Races

I had only been to the Woollett Aquatic Center on two occasions, and we will get to that second time later in this piece. But one of the few races I do remember from my one appearance at Juniors as an athlete was the men’s 400 IM. We were watching the C-Final and this guy from Dynamo Swim Club, Mick Litherland had an insane freestyle leg to win that heat. In the B-Final, Kevin Litherland had won his heat in very similar fashion to Mick. I remember saying to one of my friends before the A-Final, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if there was a third one and he won this heat?’ And lo and behold, the top seed was Jay Litherland. It turns out these triplets had a chance to sweep all three final heats of the 400 IM, and it was such a funny thing because no one really knew of the Litherlands yet.

Jay didn’t end up winning the A-Final, with Dynamo teammate Gunnar Bentz breaking the Litherland streak, but it was still one of my favorite moments from that meet that I still remember.

Flash forward five years. I was working full-time for Swimming World and I was again walking the deck at the Woollett Aquatic Center. This time it was as a reporter covering the US National Championships. The meet that served as the selection for the 2018 Pan Pacs, 2019 World University Games, and the 2019 Pan American Games. Hardly anything had changed about the facility, except I was going to be utilizing the media work room rather than the locker room and my main priority was to stay dry rather than compete in the water.

Those five days were a blur, and the majority of my memories from that meet were from the archived videos on YouTube. But the one race I remember so clearly: the men’s 200 butterfly on the first day.

The overwhelming favorites heading into the meet were Chase Kalisz and Jack Conger. Kalisz had pretty much dominated all of the Pro Swim Series meets that year, and Conger had made the final at the World Championships the previous year and was also the national champ in 2017. If there was a spoiler, it could potentially come from 2017 Worlds member Pace Clark, 2016 Olympian Tom Shields or rising star Andrew Seliskar, who was destined to have a breakout summer.

Ultimately, Clark and Seliskar did not make the final, while Kalisz barely squeaked in as the seventh seed. Conger and Shields looked to be the new favorites, coming in seeded second and fourth after prelims. The top seed for finals was Arizona grad Justin Wright, who had just turned pro and came into the meet as the fifth seed on the psych sheet. Then there was 16-year-old Luca Urlando, who had a major breakthrough to even get into the final in sixth. Little did any of us know that that was the first of many occurrences we would get to see Mr. Urlando as he dropped from a 1:59 to a 1:56.

All eight guys in the final were separated by less than a second from prelims, so everyone knew it would be a can’t-miss race on the night. Not to mention, Michael Phelps made an appearance in the media area (standing directly in front of me) to cheer on his good friend Kalisz, who many still thought would come out on top.

Really the only thing I remember vividly about this race was the final wall when Zach Harting popped up close to the lead and all of us in the media section saw the Louisville contingent go nuts on the lane 8 side of the pool. Six guys had a chance at the win on the last 50. Conger was hurting. Kalisz was falling off. Wright was surging. Urlando wouldn’t back down.

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The men’s 200 fly podium. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

When those six came crashing into the wall simultaneously and everyone looked at the results, it was almost impossible to process.

Who was Justin Wright and how did he win that race?

And Zach Harting got second? Wasn’t he more famous for being Batman rather than his own swimming?

And…Urlando got third? Who is that?!

It was truly bizarre.

Yes, Conger did end up tying with Urlando for third, but just the fact that that was the top three – rather than Conger, Kalisz and Shields, was shocking. Shields was fifth and Kalisz was sixth. No one saw that coming.

I remember Michael Phelps just walking off in shock – and it set the tone for the rest of the meet: “anything can happen.” And later in that meet, Caeleb Dressel finished sixth in the 100 free, Lilly King didn’t win the 200 breast, Ally McHugh won the 400 IM, and Michael Andrew broke out with four national titles that week. Anything could happen and we saw that that week.

Coming Full Circle

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Photo proof that I did swim at the 2013 Junior Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Andy Ross (We believe him, even though he’s not actually in the water – Ed)

The Woollett Aquatic Center will always hold a special place in my heart because it marks monumental points in my life. It was the site of my first junior nationals and also the site of my first national-level competition as a full-time reporter. It was a truly humbling experience, getting to experience that meet from the perspective of the press, realizing that this profession is not for the faint of heart and is harder than it looks. And not to mention, the pool was wonderful to swim in in-between sessions when the sun was at high noon. All these reasons are why the Woollett Aquatic Center is one of my favorite pools.

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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Dan

    Thanks for sharing.

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