Dara Torres was either 15 or 16 the first time she walked into the Indiana University Natatorium. She can't exactly remember her age -- or the swim meet, for that matter. Thirty-five years or so have dulled those details, but not the memory of that first impression.
"I remember walking in and thinking, 'Oh, my God.' I'd never seen anything like it before," said Torres, a member of five U.S. Olympic swim teams and winner of 12 medals. "I'd never seen so many seats."
From Olympians to IUPUI athletes to Indianapolis-area children, the IU Natatorium has provided a sense of wonder since 1982. State-of-the-art when it was built, the "Nat" to this day remains arguably the nation's finest indoor swimming and diving facility.
With some 4,700 permanent seats ("at most pools, you're lucky if there are stands to fit your family," Torres said), the IU Natatorium has the largest capacity of any U.S. aquatics-only facility. It's one of just a few to have two 50-meter pools plus a separate diving well. And a video board that's 16 by 59 feet, as massive and sharp as what you'd see in Lucas Oil Stadium or Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Those are just the stats, however. The magic of the place is what endures.
"This is the Yankee Stadium of swimming," IU Natatorium director Ed Merkling said. "It's fun to watch the faces of people who come here for the first time. Their eyes get super-wide, and you realize, 'Oh, yeah, this is a cool place.'"
A championship reputation
Thirty years before the city of Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl, it began to flex its muscle as a sports-host city by hosting the National Sports Festival. Over eight days in 1982, more than a quarter-million fans watched 2,600 athletes compete in 33 sports, including track and field at the newly constructed Carroll Stadium at IUPUI and, next door, aquatic events at the IU Natatorium.
The $13 million Natatorium, designed with help from legendary IU swimming coach James "Doc" Counsilman, was built specifically with major events in mind.
"I remember walking in, just totally blown away by the size and openness of the space," said famed diver Greg Louganis, who won a gold medal in 3-meter diving at the National Sports Festival in 1982 and would follow two years later with Olympic gold. "I remember diving with the drainage system, state-of-the-art at the time. The water entry was softer than at many pools I had the privilege to dive into."
Divers appreciated their setup at the Natatorium, having equal billing with the swimmers under the massive roof and not pushed into a corner or an adjacent space as they were at other facilities. And swimmers found a uniformly deep -- 9 to 10 feet -- pool with 4-foot gutters and a pumping system delivering water through the bottom of the pool instead of the sides -- all of which added up to less turbulence and, consequently, more speed.
That, combined with crowd noise from the raised grandstands on each side of the pool, created an electric atmosphere unique to the Natatorium.
"It was always loud and sort of boisterous, which was great," said Torres, who competed in U.S. Olympic trials there in 1984, 1992 and 2000. "When you go to swim meets outdoors, you don't hear the crowd as much, but in there, it's magical."
To date, the Natatorium has held 13 Olympic trials between swimming, diving and synchronized swimming, and several more elite competitions such as the U.S. National championships, with 19 world records set along the way. Michael Phelps, the most decorated swimmer in history, set a pair of world records at the Natatorium during the 2009 U.S. Nationals and the 2003 "Duel in the Pool," a meet between the best from the U.S. and Australia.
Making a mark on swimming in Indiana
U.S. Swimming, the governing body of the sport, divides the country into "LSCs," or local swimming communities, mostly by state. The three largest LSCs, not surprisingly, are the three most populous states: California, Texas and Florida.
The fourth-largest LSC is Indiana, thanks in no small part to the building at 901 W. New York St.
"The presence of the Natatorium has contributed to the success of the sport in the state," said Arlene McDonald, event director for Indiana Swimming Inc. "People get exposed to the sport at a young age and know that there are so many levels above the high school level."
Since the Natatorium opened, competition pools have sprouted all over the state. Area high schools such as Carmel, Fishers, Pike, Franklin Community, Ben Davis and North Central all have 50-meter pools. The Carmel Swim Club, which regularly books meets at the Natatorium, is one of the stronger club teams in the country.
And for some swimmers, exposure to the Natatorium comes even before junior national meets, major regional meets and the Indiana State High School Athletic Association state championships. Some 2,500 children learn to swim and enjoy recreational swimming during summer camps each year at the Nat.
Add in the IUPUI Jaguars swimming and diving teams, plus IUPUI faculty and staff who can be found turning laps from early morning to the evening, and the Natatorium is a pool for champions, aspiring champions and the masses.
About the wall...
One of the most distinctive features of the IU Natatorium is on the wall behind the diving well, where 249 U.S. Olympic qualifiers are honored. From 1984 through 2016, 10 U.S. Olympic swimming and diving trials were held at the Natatorium, and when a competitor officially made the team, a calligrapher got on a lift and scripted his or her name on the wall.
The wall has been painted twice over the years during building renovations, and each time the names were repainted. The feature is too cool to not keep.
"People still send me pictures; they'll send their kids to camp there and take a picture," said Mary Meagher Plant, who won three gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles after qualifying at the Natatorium. "It's one thing to see your name there, but to see the list -- it's surreal."
A close inspection of the wall reveals one name with a red diamond inside. When Kristy Kowal -- an eventual silver medalist in 2000 in Sydney, Australia -- qualified at the Natatorium, she walked over to the wall and thanked calligrapher Jay Sewell for the little slice of immortality.
Sewell then went back up on the lift with a red marker and put a small diamond inside the "o" in her last name, simply because of Kowal's kind gesture.
Names will continue to go up on the wall -- and soon. The IU Natatorium will host the 2020 U.S. Olympic diving trials.