FMC Natatorium an Olympian achievement for Illinois swimming
Former Illinois state champ and U.S. Olympic swimmer calls FMC Natatorium “fastest and most beautiful aquatic center in Illinois”
All three of Mary Ann and Mark Kaufman’s daughters grew up swimming competitively. Their meets took them throughout Illinois and beyond. They formed relationships with other swim families and with coaches . . . especially Pierre Ruffin, who has coached for more than 30 years.
But there was one huge obstacle that the Kaufmans and many other Illinois swim families faced: they had no set aquatics destination, no place to call home. Finding “pool time” was a struggle, and more than once, their plans were foiled by lack of available facilities. Community members complained if swim clubs took up too much time in park district pools. When high school swimming and water polo seasons started, many swim clubs had to look elsewhere, with some even renting hotel pools. It was a nomadic existence.
Keeping in mind the dedication of their coaches and the plight of their swim community, the Kaufmans, cofounders of Athletico Physical Therapy, determined to give back by developing a new facility.
“I saw the struggles that swim teams faced and how Pierre and other coaches had impacted generations of swimmers,” said Mary Ann Kaufman. “And I thought, how cool would it be to have a place that coaches could call their home and where their swimmers could always find them?”
In late September 2020, construction officially completed on the FMC Natatorium, designed by Legat Architects and built by FMC Aquatic Opportunities with Summit Design + Build staff. Located in the DuPage County community of Westmont (just 20 miles outside of downtown Chicago), the 71,000-square-foot center not only serves as a new home for many swim families, but it also creates a venue for major competitions. With 1,200 spectator seats—more than any indoor pool in Illinois—its Olympic-sized competition pool is designed to host state and national meets.
Former Illinois high school state champ and Olympic swimmer David Sims called the FMC Natatorium “the fastest and most beautiful aquatic center in Illinois.”
“I can guarantee this aquatic center is going to host many new records.” – David Sims, Former Illinois high school state champ and Olympic swimmer
It is the home base of the FMC Aquatic Swim Team whose 500 swimmers (ages eight through 22) include five Olympic Trial qualifiers. Additionally, through a partnership with another privately owned pool, FMC Natatorium rents practice space for 13 other area swim teams. Its main pool can host competitions ranging from age-group club meets and Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state meets to state and national-level U.S. Masters Swimming (ages 21+) meets. The not-for-profit facility is also a community resource that offers everything from swim lessons for all ages to open lap conditioning for members.
The FMC Natatorium welcomes Ruffin and 16 other prominent regional coaches ranging from instructors in their mid-twenties to seasoned veterans including FMC Head Coach and Facility Manager Dave Krotiak whose nearly 40 years of experience includes coaching many Olympic Trial, national, and state champion athletes.
Krotiak said, “Mary Ann Kaufman was one hundred percent committed to her promise that there would be no limitations on ideas. The result is a world-class facility that impacts not only the FMC Aquatic team, but also Illinois swimming as a whole.”
FMC stands for “For My Community.” It also captures the first letters of the Kaufmans’ three daughters’ names. The facility’s soaring glass walls display the adjacent Ty Warner Park. Ty Warner, the founder of Beanie Babies, not only funded the park, but also helped acquire the land (a soccer field) for the natatorium.
Legat project manager Jay Johnson said, “From the beginning, Mary Ann has made it clear that the goal isn’t just to create a hub for Olympic hopefuls and other serious swimmers—she wants to get as many people, especially the younger ones, into the water as soon as possible to prevent future drownings.”
A Project from the Heart
FMC Natatorium welcomes the entire spectrum of swimmers, from the infant getting a first swimming lesson to the U.S. Masters Swimming member with a lifetime of experience. Another beneficiary is the community member seeking to stay in shape—the natatorium recently announced open lap times for its members. Plans call for a variety of forthcoming programs such as swimming and diving lessons, water polo, and exercise classes. Additionally, the facility is handicap accessible to enable programs for children and adults with disabilities.
With its nine-lane main competition pool, eight-lane development pool, and four locker rooms (men, women, boys, girls), the natatorium is equally adept at hosting weekday community swim programs and weekend swim meets.
Parking includes more than 300 on-site spots, 200 spots at Ty Warner Park, and then another 125 spots on the street. For those who elect to stay in the area overnight, the nearby Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center will shuttle guests to the natatorium.
Westmont Mayor Ron Gunter called the FMC Natatorium “. . . a project from the heart. It honors the swim culture that so tightly connects families and enthusiasts across the country and across generations while delivering the utmost experience for residents and families. It is truly a win-win for all.”
Competition Pool: Bringing Swim Dollars Back to Illinois
In Illinois, swimming is a serious endeavor. The state has a strong swim culture and a reputation for producing Olympic-quality athletes. The available aquatic facilities, however, do not reflect this reality. They lack sufficient seating and, in many cases, are severely outdated.
For at least the past decade, the absence of an adequate natatorium has forced Illinois Swimming, Inc. to holds its biannual statewide age group swim meets outside the state in a crowded Wisconsin facility that only seats 700. Not only was this a time and financial burden for Illinois swim families, but their money was leaving the State of Illinois.
The competition pool at FMC Natatorium was designed to host the Illinois state club swim meets: the 25-yard “short course” meet in March, and the 50-meter “long course” meet in July.
Swimmers attending major meets at the FMC Natatorium will find themselves in the daylight-filled, 50-meter competition pool that offers nine lanes lengthwise or 20 lanes cross course. It also has three one-meter diving boards and a three-meter board to meet requirements for IHSA state meets, as well as National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II and III meets.
Kaufman said, “By hosting major events at the FMC Natatorium, we want to keep swim dollars in Illinois by bringing families to hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.” She also said that the facility will bring jobs for local residents including high schoolers.
“It’s refreshing, well-lit, and inspirational. FMC/For My Community is not just a sign on the building—this is a swim community.” – Dave Krotiak, Head Coach and Facility Manager, FMC Natatorium
Since well before the “first splash” in September, Kaufman has received calls from organizations eager to experience the FMC Natatorium. These include NCAA Division II and III colleges, as well as Division I colleges asking about Big 10 “dual meets,” where only two schools compete.
During planning, Krotiak visited more than 15 natatoriums in the U.S. and Canada, including the University of Iowa’s revered Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. He brought back the qualities of the fastest, most flexible pools to enhance Legat’s design of the new FMC Natatorium.
The main pool has two walkable platforms called “bulkheads” that can be moved via large “flywheels” to anywhere within the pool. This enables, for instance, a water polo game and a 25-yard racing course to happen at the same time. The long side of the deck has “stanchions,” holes that hold movable starting blocks, flagpoles, or rails to separate coaches from athletes. The speaker system even splits to two sides so that FMC can host two swim meets simultaneously.
Space for Swimmers and Spectators
Mary Ann Kaufman remembers the frustrations associated with IHSA state swim club competitions. She and her daughters would arrive at natatoriums at 7 a.m. They would then get ushered into an overcrowded gym, where similar families would wait until at least 2 p.m. before swimmers got called to the pool. The Kaufmans did this for 11 years. And when it came time to hit the pool, swimmers would squeeze onto a narrow deck . . . uncomfortable and a fire hazard. One pool that hosts IHSA state meets does not even have a smaller pool for warm-ups and cooling down.
Kaufman took those travails into account when planning the new facility with the Legat team. As soon as visitors step into the FMC Natatorium and experience its 38-foot ceilings, large windows, indirect LED lighting, advanced air systems, and supersized deck, they feel the difference.
“Look at this place,” said Krotiak, extending his arms. “It’s refreshing, well-lit, and inspirational.”
The competition pool deck, which is at least 19 feet on all four sides, can easily accommodate 600 athletes, a big difference from other facilities where it starts to feel tight when on-deck occupants go beyond 300.
Additionally, whereas most large natatoriums only have seating on one side, the FMC Natatorium’s “horseshoe” setup offers three sides of seating to accommodate up 1,200 spectators. If that’s not enough, another 370 seats can be added within the 11-feet-wide upper concourse walkways.
“By hosting major events at the FMC Natatorium, we want to keep swim dollars in Illinois.” – Mary Ann Kaufman, Cofounder, FMC Natatorium
Unlike other indoor pools where spectators have trouble seeing outside lanes, every seat at the FMC Natatorium offers strong views thanks to pulled-back seating and a transparent glass railing. A favorite location on the upper level is a “tech countertop,” where spectators can plug in their devices and enjoy something from the concession stand while watching meets.
To get a true feel for the size of the natatorium, look no further than its five-millimeter display board, which comes in at 12.5 feet high by 42 feet wide. According to Gregory Fink with viviLED, this is the “largest indoor LED Video Display that viviLED has designed, manufactured, and installed for an aquatic center.”
To put it in perspective, the scoreboard is comparable in size to most outdoor billboards, plus the viviLED LED video display has a graphic resolution comparable to that of a laptop or computer monitor. FMC can show information for two simultaneous competitions, live video, messages about classes, movies, and much more.
The focus on quality can even be seen in the flooring: most pools have small one-inch or two-inch square tiles, but the FMC Natatorium has 12-inch by 24-inch tiles with a nonslip surface. In the lobby, the tiles increase to 36-inch squares.
Jay Johnson said, “The larger tiles are more attractive, plus fewer grout lines mean that they can be cleaned more efficiently.”
Additionally, fluid-applied epoxy coating covers the concrete in upper-level seating areas to make the floors easier to maintain.
Yes . . . It’s Fast
Among serious swimmers, the most important characteristic of a pool is how “fast” it is. Depth, gutters, design, and other elements factor into the equation. What it all adds up to, according to Krotiak, is still water, “which every elite swimmer knows is the fastest pool to compete in.”
FMC Natatorium’s competition pool, designed by Water Technology, Inc. and manufactured by Myrtha Pools USA, varies in depth from eight to 14 feet. Myrtha’s kit of parts approach results in meticulous assembly and exacting measurements . . . critical for a sport where everything is measured by hundredths of seconds.
According to Aaron Gabriel with Myrtha Pools USA, several features make the competition pool an “elite racing venue:”
- Its rim-flow gutter system (same system used in the past for U.S. Olympic Trials and in Olympic Games) absorbs energy to create a smoother course.
- Deep water (shallowest depth eight feet, one inch) helps reduce turbulence.
- Starting blocks (same style used at U.S. Olympic Trials) are anchored into elevated platforms called “headwalls” to give swimmers a faster start.
- Pool designer Water Technology, Inc. designed wider lanes (8.2 feet) than required to dissipate energy between swimmers.
- Advanced “bottom feed” jets further minimize turbulence from the bottom back to the swimmer.
“All elements in the competition pool at FMC Natatorium are compliant with International Swimming Federation (FINA), USA Swimming, and NCAA standards,” said Gabriel. “That means virtually any national-level meet can be held here. No other pool in Illinois can currently make that claim.”
Development Pool: Designed for Flexibility
Initial plans for the FMC Natatorium called for a smaller secondary pool with only four lanes. However, when Krotiak started looking at square footages and lanes required for different uses, the team determined more lanes would allow the pool to better benefit the community.
The resulting eight-lane development pool serves many needs: open-lane swimming or jogging for members, warm up/cool down for major event competitors, training for younger team members, lessons for community members. Its deepest corner (six feet, four inches) even has two starter blocks for teaching younger swimmers how to “get off the block.”
You will never see “floaters” (i.e., inflatable wings children use to stay afloat) in the pools at FMC Natatorium. The devices, according to Kaufman, are often used as substitutes for learning how to swim.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in children under five. The Kaufmans, acutely aware of this statistic, created the FMC Natatorium not just to host swim competitions, but also to give area children early access to the water.
The development pool, unlike similar pools, has a soft bottom and one shallow (three and a half feet deep) lane for swim lessons. Mary Ann Kaufman plans to offer special programs with area preschools. Most recently, the natatorium launched a partnership with Infant Swimming Resource (ISR), which provides survival swimming lessons with the mission of “Not One More Child Drowns.”
The development pool also offers two sets of showers for swimmers before and after they enter the pool, along with a viewing room for parents.
Dry Land Areas
The FMC Natatorium has plenty of “dry land” (to use swimming culture lingo) spaces. The first floor, for instance, houses a hospitality room, coaches’ offices, conference room, and tech room, all of which have views to the competition pool (and in the case of the coaches’ offices, both pools). A hospitality room for coaches and officials offers a washer, dryer, freezer, refrigerator, and hot plates.
On the second level, swimmers can warm up in a large multipurpose room or do strength training in the adjacent weight room. Other areas on the second level include a swim shop operated by Urban Tri Gear (a Westmont business), as well as a concession stand.
It’s That Great
Every day at 5:30 a.m., speakers deliver hard rock music while members of FMC Aquatic’s elite national team speed through the water. Elsewhere in the competition pool, Masters swimmers prepare for state meets and natatorium members get in some laps before heading to work. And that’s just before 7:00 a.m.
As the day progresses, the waters at FMC Natatorium welcome swimmers of all levels and ages. One of the most rewarding experiences for Krotiak has been seeing adults interact with children. “Kids see these guys coming and nobody’s forcing them,” he said. “It changes the way that kids think about swimming. FMC/For My Community is not just a sign on the building—this is a swim community.”
“It honors the swim culture that so tightly connects families and enthusiasts across the country and across generations while delivering the utmost experience for residents and families.” – Ron Gunter, Mayor, Village of Westmont
And according to Dave Sims, this swim community is on the way to producing champions. “There is no greater thrill than watching homegrown athletes break records. I can guarantee this aquatic center is going to host many new records. It’s that great.”
Despite all the high-level competition happening within the natatorium, Mary Ann Kaufman, remembering her own experiences, still gets a charge out of seeing the transition from wary children dipping their toes into the water for the first time to confident swimmers. Many of those youngsters will become lifelong swimmers . . . and some of them, 15 years from now, may very well step onto the starting block at the Olympic Games.
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