When it comes to swimming, the YMCA has had many firsts: the world’s first mass swim lessons at the Detroit YMCA in 1907 and the world’s first indoor filtered pool at the Kansas City (Mo.) YMCA in 1910 to name a few. Locally, the YMCA has 31 pools, and the Aquatic Center is the crown jewel of them all. Located between Interstate 4 and International Drive, it has assembled a cast of Olympians, industry leaders and committed staff who are dedicated to bringing aquatics to new heights and helping the center to earn its own place in YMCA swimming history.
In 1985, the building was known as the Justus Aquatics Center – part hotel, part swim complex. Former gold medal Olympian Rowdy Gaines was the spokesperson and many locals found a home there. Despite this, the center struggled to find its footing. Within several years, it was closed and the city planned to tear it down to build a parking lot. But the aquatic center’s supporters weren’t going to let that happen.
Passionate About Their Place
Local hotelier and philanthropist Harris Rosen, who swam at the Justus Aquatics Center at the time, created a group called Friends of the Aquatic Center to re-open the complex. Lucky Meisenheimer, the curator of Lucky’s Lake Swim, and other area influencers joined him.
“We fought very hard for a long time,” Meisenheimer says. “Everybody told us we would lose. I wasn’t even sure we were going to win. But Harris was absolutely positive that we were going to get this place re-opened. He was motivating to all of us.”
At the end of the six-month ordeal, the bank donated the facility to the county, which then donated it to the YMCA of Central Florida. In June 1992, it was re-opened as the YMCA Aquatic Center.
“I’m a firm believer that this amazing place we have here is kind of a hidden jewel, especially for our community,” Gaines says. He is now the Vice President of Aquatics, a position that was created specifically for him. “I’ve been associated with the building one way or another since its opening. I guess next to my wife and my family and my children, I’m obsessed.”
The Community Impact
In the past 25 years, the YMCA Aquatic Center has made a lasting impact on the community it serves. Individuals are taken from cradle through career and senior years with swim safety. Safe Start, an infant water survival program headed by Vicki Golat, prepares kids to advance to the swim lesson program, the swim academy, the swim team and ultimately activities like competitive swimming, underwater hockey, water polo, diving and synchronized swimming. In adulthood, the Y’s Masters Swim was developed for the serious adult swimmer who is looking to improve his or her triathlon time or compete year-round.
At the facility, Meisenheimer coaches the swim team for the Special Olympics, which is one of the largest swim teams in the organization. The YMCA Aquatic Center also boosts tourism numbers for the area by hosting events throughout the year, ranging from small high school invitational meets to live, televised events with professional swimmers and Olympians.
“This isn’t your typical neighborhood YMCA facility, but it is one with a significant past that treaded water just long enough to make a lasting impact on children, families and the sport of swimming,” says Mike Brady, executive director for the YMCA Aquatic Center.
How Far It Has Come
Meisenheimer likens the YMCA Aquatic Center’s record board to a “who’s who of American swimming.” Oftentimes, kids walk into the building and look up in awe at the names on the scoreboard, which includes Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin, gold medal Olympians who have been right there on the pool deck.
For the individuals involved with saving the complex all those years ago, it’s easy to wonder: What if? What would have happened if it ended up a parking lot?
“I think of all those kids for all those years that I’ve seen come up through the system and the great things they’ve done – All Americans, getting college scholarships, getting placed on national teams – and how it has impacted and changed their life,” Meisenheimer says. “I’ve seen life after life after life changed in this place.”
YMCA of Central Florida
433 N. Mills Ave.
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“It must have been around ’95-‘96. We had the national team here and they were training, working out hard. I went to the coach and I said, ‘Look, I coach the Special Olympics team. Would your guys be able to come out, maybe just one or two of them, to maybe help with the Special Olympians – just kind of motivate them a little bit?’
He says, ‘We’re in our kill week right now. These guys are dead. They go home, they eat and they go to bed. It’s grueling.’ But he said he would see if anybody was feeling up to doing it.
Every single guy and gal on that national team showed up for our practice. They stayed the whole practice, they worked with the athletes, and they took photographs with them. It was my proudest moment as a swimmer because where else in the world would you have your most talented folks come together with your most challenged folks? At the YMCA Aquatic Center. Five of those people, rightfully so, went on to win gold medals in the Olympics later that year.”
When he was 9 years old, Mark Ruiz took up diving in his home city of Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. In the summertime, he traveled to Orlando to participate in a diving camp at the YMCA Aquatic Center. At 12 years old, he moved to Orlando with his mother, leaving behind his home and his family, to pursue his dream of making a name for himself as part of Team Orlando Diving, known today as YCF Diving.
Throughout his teenage years, Ruiz won high school state championships and earned national titles. After winning the 1999 Pan Am Games gold medal, he made the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic teams, placing 6th and 7th respectively.
Now, as the director of the YMCA Aquatic Center diving program, Ruiz has come full circle. The position has given him the opportunity to give back to young, hopeful divers, just as the aquatics center did for him.