Making a Splash

Thunderbirds say goodbye to the old Aquatic Centre, and UBC says hello to a brand new swimming facility

A multi-generational gathering of past and present Thunderbirds swimmers united in November to bid farewell to UBC's historic old Aquatic Centre. The celebration marked the final T-Birds meet in the pool before the team makes the transition to a new, state-of-the-art aquatic centre (see slideshow at end of article). While the move to the upgraded facilities is a welcome one, alumni and current Thunderbirds were keen to give the building one final performance before its doors close.

With construction completed in 1978, the old Aquatic Centre is just shy of 40 years old. A lot of history can be packed into four decades, and the November gathering was  testament to that. Swimmers ranging from age 18 to 72 competed against one another in the friendly meet, as the appropriately titled Blue and Gold teams battled through a series of races before closing out the afternoon with a final Thunderbird cheer.

Thunderbirds gathered for one last dip in the old pool (photo: Jeremy Laurie)

Some of UBC's most decorated swimmers attended the farewell meet, including Olympians Mark Versfeld and Brent Hayden. Versfeld, who competed as a T-Bird from 1996-2001 and secured double-gold in the 1998 Commonwealth Games, remembers the old Aquatic Centre as an important part of shaping him both as a swimmer and individual.

"I learned to believe in myself here, and to go for my dreams. The team always helped each other. We worked together to achieve something. It was inspiring to have been in this environment at a young age," noted Versfeld.

Hayden remains one of the most decorated Canadian swimmers in history, with six unbroken Canadian swimming records and a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. Hayden credits his years in UBC's Aquatic Centre as an important formation period in his storied career.

"As someone going from a high school student to a varsity athlete, my time at UBC played a big role in my development as an athlete. Especially the responsibility of balancing school and sport," said Hayden.

Though many young T-Birds were excited to share the pool with such legendary swimmers, Hayden himself was eager to compete with some of the swimmers who pioneered the Thunderbirds swimming program.

"I'm excited to see some familiar faces and even some from before my time. It's a way to remember the history this place has given to the UBC swim program, and it continues to bring people together."

Don Cooper and Sandra Buckingham (photo: Jeremy Laurie)

Not all alumni present on Saturday had competed in the old Aquatic Centre. There were those, like Don Cooper and Sandra Buckingham, whose careers as T-Birds took place years before the the facilities were constructed. Cooper, who swam with UBC in the outdoor Empire Pool from 1968-73, recalled efforts he and his teammates made to get the Aquatic Centre approved.

"I remember going to classes and talking to students to get support [for] a slight raise in student fees to approve this building," he said. "I also remember swimming outside in the snow in late October. That's the way it was. It was a very interesting time."

Though Cooper was no longer a UBC student by the time the facilities were constructed, his efforts as a student certainly contributed to the building's approval and eventual construction.

Buckingham also spent her time as a Thunderbird in the Empire Pool in 1962-63, though she continues to swim nearly every day at the old Aquatic Centre. At age 72, Buckingham may be the Thunderbird with the most miles logged in the pool. Her passion for swimming was also inherited by her son, Will Waters, who swam with the 'Birds.

Canadian Olympian Brent Hayden (photo: Jeremy Laurie)

"Those days in the [Empire Pool] were before goggles, caps, or team suits," said Buckingham. "Many of our meets were telegraph meets, meaning schools competed in a time trial at home, and the results would get telegraphed to one another. We didn't have the budgets to travel to different cities."

Times have certainly changed since the days of telegraphs and swimming without goggles, but one thing that has remained constant is the growth and success of the UBC Thunderbirds swim program. Current head coach Steve Price sees the closing of the facilities as bittersweet, but ultimately a natural next step for a thriving program.

"I've seen the program blossom, [particularly] since 1990. It started to really pick up, and has been a strong program ever since. Our legacy has maintained throughout," said Price.

"We're excited for the new facilities, but we've also produced a lot of champions [in] this pool. I would say it's because of the people who have come through the doors more than the facility, but this place has certainly had something to do with it."

After almost 30 months in development, UBC’s new Aquatic Centre opened to the public on January 23, 2017. The 80,000 square foot, $40-million building replaces several aging indoor and outdoor facilities dating as far back as 1954. With a total of four pools on site – double that of the old centre – the new complex can better accommodate the shared needs of both the general community and UBC’s competitive Thunderbirds swimmers.

The new building is targeting LEED Gold certification and features numerous green design choices, including a rainwater collection system and a water disinfection system that uses both chlorine and UV light. Accessibility was also prioritized, with ramps to two pools, a power lift into the hot tub, and a universal changing room in addition to men's and women's rooms.

Explore the slideshow below to learn more about the new facility and its construction.