This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score.
I went down to Long Beach last night for the first night of the U.S Olympic Swimming Trials. As promised, teenage sensation Michael Phelps was the story. Phelps has his eye on matching Mark Spitz a month from now in Athens in becoming only the second athlete in history to win seven gold medals in one Olympics. Spitz accomplished that mind-boggling feat 32 years ago in Munich in 1972. Watching the versatile Phelps glide his way to yet another world record last night made you believe seven gold are once again possible. But the buzz in the stands last night was as much about the pool itself as it was about wunderkind Phelps.
For the Trials, a maverick design above-ground pool was brought over from Italy and assembled next to the Long Beach Convention Center. Trevor Tiffany, the president of the pool company, Myrtha Pools, explained to me why such effort and expense was made for the Trials. First of all, there is no outdoor or indoor swimming facility in the US that can seat as many spectators as this pool, 10,000, and the sense of theater did elevate the experience last night. Second, almost all pools are longer than the Olympic standard of 50 meters because of human error. Once you pour concrete, plaster tile, apply glue for water-proofing materials, it-s almost impossible to make a pool to a precise length. So most competition pools are built long by about an inch, to make sure they are at least 50 meters and legal for records. This Long Beach pool of stainless steel was laid in by architects and engineers in panels that measure precisely 50 meters, to the millimeter.
You will hear world-class swimmers talk about "fast;" and "slow;" pools. They don-t need to check the clock. They can just feel it. The Munich pool was fast to the touch. The nature of the water itself was soft. The Swimming Hall of Fame pool in Ft. Lauderdale is notoriously slow, partly because one end is very shallow. A recreational pool, with a very shallow end for kids and teaching, is not a good pool for competition. Maybe you-ve had the experience swimming in the ocean. Your stroke seems effortless over deep water. Then when you come over a shallow stretch, you suddenly feel resistance. Same thing in a pool. When you swim over a shallow section, you create a rebound effect from the bottom, slowing you down. The Long Beach pool has no shallow end. It-s 6-6" from end to end.
It-s funny to see the swimming photos from early Olympics. Swimmers in the first modern Games in Athens in 1896 fought waves in the open Mediterranean Sea and the water was very cold, 50 degrees. One event was called "100; meters for sailors".;
In 1904 in St. Louis, they swam in a small lake and participants would gather on a sinking platform. When their weight combined to push the platform under the surface, that was their signal to dive in and start stroking. The 1912 Stockholm venue was actually natural waters as well but they surrounded it with planks for the spectators and gave it the feeling of a pool, although it was still a chilly 50 degrees. The first heated Olympic pool was used here in Los Angeles for the 1932 Games. Today, Olympic competition is swum at about 80 degrees. Back in those early days there were no lane lines, either. You tried to swim straight but competitors did run into each other. That was just part of the challenge. Today-s lane lines have suctioning properties so that the splash from a swimmer-s kick is immediately absorbed. And the gutters of the most modern pools have multiple outlets that take in all the splash and waves and don-t allow water to rebound back onto the surface. It wasn-t so long ago that you tried very hard to qualify into the middle lanes because if you swam in the outside lanes, next to the walls and gutters, you-d be slapped with rebound water. That pool at Long Beach last night was smooth as a skating pond, end to end, side to side.
So now you know. And it-s useful water cooler conversation. Yes, some pools are faster than others.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that-s The Score.