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King County Aquatic Center strengthens Federal Way's economy and profile

Swimmers start a preliminary heat during the March 2008 NCAA Men
Swimmers start a preliminary heat during the March 2008 NCAA Men's Swimming and Diving Championships at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

Since opening 20 years ago, the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center has documented many firsts.

The center has landed several regional, state, national and international events. Its ability to offer cutting-edge equipment and technology has helped it become known nationally. And its notoriety helps Federal Way prosper.

Making a name

Annually, the facility hosts three or four high-profile events and many smaller happenings. Olympic Trials, NCAA championships, PAC-10 conferences, U.S. National events and Speedo Junior Nationals are just a few competitions the aquatic center has secured. The center made history when it was the third facility to attempt, and the first to successfully pull off, back-to-back large-scale competitions: the 2009 U.S. Swimming Open and 2009 U.S. Swimming Speedo Junior Nationals, this past August.

It was recently announced that the 2012 U.S. Olympic Diving Trials will be held at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center. The 2,500-seat facility was home to the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials in 2000 as well.

"Nothing's taken for granted when people come here," facility manager Mike Dunwiddie said. "It's not another swimming event. People feel welcome."

Landing events

Securing notable events is not easy. Dunwiddie annually attends a national convention where he places bids for events one to two years away.

"We very aggressively go after national events," he said.

Getting the event requires coordination and risk-taking. In the case of Olympic Trials, a rights fee must be paid to bid the event. This can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Dunwiddie said. An event coordinator is also needed. This person or organization is responsible for paying the rights fee, Dunwiddie said. The organization must then hope it recoups its money through ticket sales, he said.

The Seattle Sports Commission has tended to act as the event coordinator for Olympic Trials, Dunwiddie said. Paying the rights fee generally requires help from a municipality. The City of Federal Way contributes hotel lodging tax funds toward the rights fee. This money can only be used to encourage tourism in the city.

The money will eventually make its way back to Federal Way come June 18-24, 2012, when the trials take place. The diving trials are expected to bring $3.5 million to Federal Way, mostly through lodging rentals. They will get national television coverage, which increases the nation's awareness of Federal Way, Dunwiddie said. That same year could bring the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships. Dunwiddie expects to hear soon whether the facility landed that event.

Despite the still recovering economy and the county's budget problems, the aquatic center is financially stable, Dunwiddie said. It is not having problems attracting events or placing bids, he said.

"We're so well situated for the future," Dunwiddie said.

Background

The aquatic center celebrated its grand opening April 18, 1990. The facility was constructed to host the Goodwill Games. Weyerhaeuser donated the land. The Seattle Goodwill Games Committee donated $5 million. An $8.8 million King County bond helped make the facility a reality. The Games went well and the aquatic center hasn't looked back since. Upwards of 200 world records have been broken in the aquatic center's competition pool.

"In a lot of ways, we're better than when we opened up," facility manager Mike Dunwiddie said.

The center's design keeps it competitive. The facility accommodates swimming, synchronized swimming, diving and water polo. It is one of only a few of its kind in the nation.

The facility's equipment also gives it a leg-up on the competition. The Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center was the first in the country to feature horns under each starting block, Dunwiddie said. The equipment ensures all swimmers hear the start signal at the same time during competition. The water flow in the competition pool is also unique. It enters from the pool floor, causing less interference with swimmers' speed. A massive state-of-the-art scoreboard, displaying competitors' times while they're racing, hangs prominently at the end of the pool. Recently, the overhead lighting system was modified so it can be turned on and off quickly, allowing the use of specialized lighting, like spotlights. This type of attraction is old news for sports like basketball, but it's up-and-coming to aquatic sports, Dunwiddie said.

"It, overall, creates a new level of excitement," he said.

Check it out

The Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center is open to the public for open swim, pool exercise, family swim, lessons and lap swim. A membership is not required. General admission ranges from $3.25 to $5, not including exercise classes, pool passes or rentals. For more information and a schedule, visit www.kingcounty.gov/recreation/parks/wkcac.aspx.

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