CLEARWATER — The Department of Defense first got in touch with Long Center officials about 18 months ago, seeking details about the Olympic-sized pool on Belcher Road.
“They first called us in the winter-spring of 2018 and said, ‘We’d like to come out and look at the pool,’” said Richard Auskalnis, recreation supervisor II, and manager of The Roz & Dan Doyle Center for Aquatics at the City of Clearwater Long Center. “Then they would come out in groups, just the logistics officers at first. Then more DoD people came out, sometimes by the literal busload, surveilling the pool building, the parking, and surrounding areas.”
The military wasn’t planning an operation to eradicate a terrorist cell on Belcher Road or other combatant show of force. Rather, the advance teams came from the U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The special forces headquarters are sponsors of this year’s annual Department of Defense Warrior Games. The athletes are soldiers who’ve survived loss of limbs, brain injury, visual impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses.
From now until June 30, 300 of the athletes are competing in 14 sports around Tampa, including basketball, volleyball, rugby, archery, and other exploits. The athletes are from the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Special Operations Command. Athletes from the U.K. Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force and Canadian Armed Forces are also competing.
For the first time since the games were launched in 2015, the Warrior Games swimming competition — which begins at 8 a.m. Saturday, June 29 — will be hosted by city staff and volunteers at the Long Center at 1501 North Belcher Rd.
“The city of Clearwater is lucky enough to be hosting the swim event, so while most events are over there in Tampa this weekend, we will have close to 150 swimmers competing in our pool,” Auskalnis said.
According to the DoD, veterans will compete in the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, 50-yard backstroke, and 50-yard breaststroke in both men's and women's categories. Relay races offered are mixed classifications men only, women only and mixed gender.
To aid the athletes, a flash of light will alert hearing-impaired swimmers of a race’s start, and assistants will “use a pole to tap visually impaired swimmers when it’s time to complete a lap and turn,” Auskalnis said. The city-owned and operated facility already has wheelchair ramps, railings and Americans with Disability Act-compliant doorways and bathrooms. In addition to ramps, recreation volunteers and DoD team volunteers will have the use of pool lifts for getting swimmers in and out of the water between races, he said.
Athletes will start warmups at 7 a.m. Saturday and won’t have to face cold pool water that early in the morning. The Long Center keeps the water temperature of the Olympic pool, which is 50 meters long by 25 meters wide, at about 80 degrees, he said.
Rather than swim the entire 50 meters each row, races — included 400 meter races — will be broken into 25-meter laps, Auskalnis said.
The entire Long Center staff and volunteer force will be on hand to handle the expected influx of cars and spectators at Saturday’s day-long event.
“Our full staff is ready to go, we have our supervisors, full lifeguard crew, camp counselors, recreation leaders, plus custodial crew,” Auskalnis said. “We’re expecting a lot of people, so we’ll have overflow parking next door,” he said. “We’ve also invited the city of mayor and city council.”
Swimmers are divided into cohorts based on functional abilities, including impaired muscle power/range of movement, limb deficiency and visual impairment, Warrior Games officials said.
Athletes are “seeded” by fastest times based on previous performance, with the higher seeds being closer to the center lanes of the pool, DoD officials said.
Athletes are allowed to dive, sit on the platform, or be in the water at the beginning of the race. The way an athlete starts is determined by the athlete's classification.
The city’s Recreation Department aren’t the only ones pitching in Saturday. The DoD contracted with the Clearwater Police Department to help with security, police spokesman Rob Shaw said.
Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater’s parks and recreation director, said the hard work preparing for Saturday’s swim meet is worth it.
“We are extremely proud to be hosting these brave men and women at the Doyle Aquatics Center at Long Center,” he said. “We want them to have a first-class experience at one of the top aquatic centers in the country.”