Welcome to Ann Arbor, America's swim capital

Most Wolverines fans won't hesitate to tell you that Ann Arbor is the best city in America for football. But a less biased survey has now concluded two years in a row that Tree Town is America's top spot for a somewhat less popular sport: swimming.

In the second annual "50 Top Swim Cities" report, commissioned by USA Swimming and Speedo USA, Ann Arbor clinched the top ranking again. That's thanks to our town having the highest number of USA Swimming athletes and the second highest number of pools per capita nationwide. The survey chalks that up largely to the influence of the University of Michigan's top-notch swimming program and Club Wolverine, our USA Swimming club team for local swimmers with an Olympic gleam in their eye.

"It is a big sport in the area," says Kelton Graham, Club Wolverine's head coach. "I don't want to say it's like soccer in Brazil, but it's kind of one of the things people do around here."

Denny Hill cofounded Club Wolverine and is now retired from a 46-year career coaching Pioneer High School's swimming team, during which time the school clinched 31 state championships. He says Ann Arbor has been "a sports-oriented town" with an equal-opportunity mindset towards all varieties of athletics for far longer than the "Top Swim Cities" report has been around. 

"You've got all kinds of facilities that were developed through the community to have kids active in whatever sport they wanted to get into," Hill says. "And swimming was one that really blossomed for the last 30 to 40 years."

U-M head swim coach Mike Bottom says he was aware of Ann Arbor's record in athletics overall when he came here in 2008, but he's been surprised at how strong swimming is throughout the community. From the Ann Arbor YMCA to high school pools and public pools, Bottom asserts that there's "more access to water" here than in many communities in California, where he spent 10 years coaching the University of California's swim team. (San Jose-Santa Clara and San Francisco-Oakland rank as the No. 2 and No. 3 swimming cities in the new report, below Ann Arbor.)

"The San Francisco bay area is a huge area and there's a lot of clubs in there," Bottom says. "But there's a nice, small community here where swimming is a big part of the fabric of a smaller community. I think that's what makes Ann Arbor a No. 1 destination, because swimming is interwoven."

Bottom notes that that goes right down to the annual "dog swim" at Buhr Park Pool, where families are invited to bring their pets on the pool's closing day.

"That kind of caps off swimming being for the whole family," Bottom chuckles.

Littler folks in the bigger picture

Several local swimming enthusiasts say there's one major element the "Top Swim Cities" study overlooked. Pete Loveland coaches the Saline High School men's and women's swimming teams, the Huron Valley Swim Club and the Saline Swim Team []. He says it's "ironic" that the survey didn't factor in the Washtenaw Interclub Swim Conference (WISC), a league for young swimmers comprised of 18 swim clubs from across the county. 

"The WISC league is how the kids get into the swim programs to begin with," Loveland says. "They don't go to Club Wolverine or [the Plymouth Canton Cruisers] or the Saline Swim Team or [the Dexter Community Aquatic Club without having started somewhere. And a lot of that starting is in the WISC league."

Skyline High School head swimming coach Maureen Isaac says WISC provides an equal opportunity for local swimmers to receive instruction and begin competing from a very young age.

"In this league there's everything from the Huron Valley Swim Club…which has won the league for 39 years or 40 or something ridiculous, down to Forestbrooke, which is a little neighborhood pool that has this really rich tradition and only has maybe 40 kids on their swimming team," Isaac says. "There's something for everybody in Ann Arbor and I think WISC is really what sets this community apart."

Origins of a swim city

So where does Ann Arbor get all this passion for swimming in the first place? Many local swimming enthusiasts chalk it up to the excitement generated by U-M's program. Isaac says the "Michael Phelps effect," created when the Olympic megastar trained here in the mid-2000s, was hugely influential on Ann Arbor's swimming community.

"It's always been a really diverse and large population, but it has absolutely strengthened in the last 10 years," she says.

Others reach further back, pointing to the influence of Jon Urbanchek, who coached swimming at U-M from 1982 to 2004. Urbanchek led the Wolverines to 13 Big Ten title wins, including a stunning 10 consecutive wins from 1986 to 1995. Hill says Urbanchek's arrival marked the beginning of Ann Arbor as a "magnet for Olympians."

However, Urbanchek himself is hesitant to take too much credit. He traces Ann Arbor's swimming legacy back to RoseMary Dawson, who founded the Ann Arbor Swim Club for pre-collegiate swimmers in 1956. At the time, when Urbanchek was still swimming for U-M himself, he says there were no "age group" programs for younger swimmers.

"Most people started swimming later on, like in high school," he says. "Then kids started swimming at 5 and 6, 7 and 8, 9 and 10. They were a product of this age group program, which started in the '50s throughout America. It's not only just in Ann Arbor…but Ann Arbor definitely picked it up and I think that's another reason we've been so successful in the world of swimming."

Looking toward the future, Ann Arbor swimming may be ready for another major step forward on the infrastructure level. Concentrate asked all the swimming enthusiasts interviewed for this story if there were any local swimming resources that are underutilized; all agreed that most local pools and clubs are already well-used, if not overfilled.

"At the YMCA you can go there at any given time and it's kind of hard to find a lane because there's so many people using them," Isaac says. "I think what really needs to happen is we need a huge aquatic facility in this town, and we almost need to build a really good competitive pool for a team like Club Wolverine. If anything, we' re at capacity for aquatics and we really could use a new swimming center."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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