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Pool time: Liberty Natatorium proves to be a prime venue for top-level competition

Swimmers take off from the blocks at the Liberty Natatorium during the Feb. 15-17 CCSA Women’s Championships. (Photos by Andrew Snyder)

While spectators were not allowed at the Feb. 15-17 CCSA Championships at the Liberty Natatorium, the university’s women’s swimming & diving team still savored the cozy confines of its home environs as it captured a share of a fourth team title.

The facility was christened in January 2018, and a year later, the Lady Flames became the first program in CCSA history to host a championship meet on campus. In its first few years, the 75,000-square-foot natatorium has become a prime venue for collegiate swimming and diving, standing out in the crowd as one of the few facilities in the nation with an Olympic-distance competition pool and separate 17-foot-deep diving well.

“This is the only collegiate facility in Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and further north on the East Coast that has a 50-meter pool and then a separate diving well,” Lady Flames 12th-year Head Coach Jake Shellenberger said. “It makes for a much better environment for both swimmers and divers. And when you’re running a long-course meet, it gives you the opportunity to have warm-down space.”

The natatorium features a nine-lane, 50-meter pool with a removable bulkhead that can divide it into two, 25-yard pools with a total of 20 lanes for short-course competition. A ready room adjacent to the starting blocks provides a place for swimmers to stay warm and relaxed before they race, while a 43-by-14-foot videoboard provides instant replays of photo finishes and live times and team scores.

Lady Flames 12th-year Head Coach Jake Shellenberger (left) addresses his team on the deck of the Liberty Natatorium on Day 3 of the CCSA meet on Feb. 17.

Wraparound stands provide a bowl seating configuration with over 1,400 seats and a total capacity of 2,000, including swimmers and divers. Shellenberger said due to the facility’s spacious yet intimate atmosphere and acoustics, 1,400 screaming fans sound and feel like 4,000.

“We can’t utilize it this year much because of COVID, but when you get a lot of people in that bowl seating configuration, it’s exciting,” Shellenberger said. “It’s probably one of — if not the most — exciting racing atmospheres in the country.”

Combining the adrenaline from the crowd and the hydrodynamics of the pool, athletes have often clocked personal-best and even national qualifying times in its lanes.

A NOVA Aquatics club competition late last month was the highest-caliber meet held at the natatorium since the pandemic. Four swimmers met time standards for the June 13-20 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., which will determine Team USA’s qualifiers for the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in late July.

“They had a great experience and they’re looking at hosting another meet here in May,” said Donna Hodgert, Liberty’s associate director of aquatics in charge of the facility and events, in referring to the Richmond, Va., club team. “They loved our facility and that we have the capability to go long-course and said they’d love to come back.”

Hodgert said the design of the pool makes its a top-rate facility for swimming fast.

“The depth of the water is 7 feet over the length of the pool, and with the gutters on the side and the way the water flows, it keeps it tranquil at the surface. The water temperature, the air quality, all the technology that we have in this building makes for an ideal environment for swimming.”

Liberty was forced to shut down the venue for two months last spring in response to the pandemic, but operations have slowly and safely returned to normal thanks to the efforts of Hodgert and her mostly student-worker staff, as well as volunteers.

“With COVID, we were really limited to what we could do in the fall,” Hodgert said, noting that there were no events in the facility until after Christmas, when the YMCA of Central Virginia hosted a USA Swimming meet. “In January, people started hosting meets and finding they could do it safely. They’ve done a fantastic job, with support from the parents and coaches. They have mapped out everything so there are very few numbers on the pool deck, and they’ve got a flow pattern to keep people walking around the pool without crossing each other’s paths.”

Lady Flames swimmers cheer on their teammates in the pool during a key race in the CCSA Championships.

After hosting the CCSA women’s championship (as it will again in Feb. 2022) and the CCSA men’s meet the following Friday through Sunday, the Liberty Natatorium will stage this Friday’s through Sunday’s NCAA Division III Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) Championships for the first time, with 12 women’s and 11 men’s teams competing.

The Lady Flames, who concluded their regular season by defeating Campbell University on Jan. 23 at the Liberty Natatorium, have now won 22 consecutive home dual meets, the third-longest active home winning streak among NCAA Division I women’s swimming & diving programs behind only Boise State (27) and Stanford (24).

Freshman Maddie Freece and junior Lauren Chennault were selected on Monday to compete in the March 11-13 NCAA Zone Diving Meet at the Greensboro (N.C.) Aquatic Center.

Lady Flames swimmers met three NCAA Zone qualifying times at the CCSA meet and senior Payton Keiner will find out on Wednesday if she made the cuts in the 200 backstroke for the March 24-27 NCAA Division I National Championships in Greensboro.

From April 9-11, due to College Club Swimming (CCS) opting for a virtual national meet this season, Liberty’s Club Sports men’s swimming team will host its own championship meet at the natatorium, the Liberty Collegiate Cup, with times entered into the CCS national pool.

“I feel really strongly and I’m really happy that Liberty has tried to host events and do it safely and we’ve proven that we can,” Hodgert said. “It’s wonderful to be able to say to a group like the men’s club team, ‘Yes, let’s try to have a meet here. We’ve done it, we can do it safely, so let’s move forward.’”

Flames Head Coach Heath Grishaw talks with team captains Ben Klipp and Noah Miller on the natatorium pool deck.

The home-pool advantage should be a factor in the Flames’ favor as their 20-plus swimmers compete against 100 or more swimmers from five or more colleges and universities.

“It is definitely a fast pool and we are blessed to have it,” men’s swimming Assistant Coach Blake Dunson said. “We are excited about having the meet here to try to preserve that spirit of in-person competition which is pretty important to us. Psychologically, being able to visualize the competition is definitely a big motivating factor and there is adrenaline associated with an in-person meet.”

Dunson said while next month’s event will serve as a regional sight for CCS nationals, if the meet has good success, he and Head Coach Heath Grishaw might host it again in the future as a mid-season invitational. He thanked Hodgert and her staff for taking the necessary precautions to provide a safe pool for teams to compete in.

“We are very proud of the steps that Athletics and the Liberty Natatorium staff have taken in making sure we have a safe environment to train and compete in in spite of the risks associated with COVID-19,” Dunson said. “We were able to host CCSA meets due to that high standard of safety, and we expect to have the same hygiene, distancing requirements, and other COVID-19 precautions in place.”