NOVA Flashback: Building the First Pool

An Interview With Don Farmer, former NOVA Board President

Recently, Coach Geoff and Don Farmer, a former NOVA Board President and longtime NOVA supporter, got together to remember the process and reflect on what it has meant for the club.

Geoff Brown: Anyone with institutional knowledge of NOVA knows Don Farmer's name, and some are lucky enough to know the man. I say “No Don Farmer, no NOVA pool.” Care to dispute that assertion?

Don Farmer: Among the records I kept from the "Pool of Dreams" project was a log I maintained that includes meetings of the NOVA board and committees (fundraising, media, “Pool of Dreams” committee [the committee tasked with building the facility]), as well as meetings with representatives from potential construction sites, banks, county officials, etc. In preparation for this interview, I reviewed the log that begins on August 5, 1993 and ends on July 13, 1997 with the dedication of the first NOVA pool. The names of a large number of passionate NOVA parents are included in the log as committee participants, chairpersons and others who had a particular talent or connection that could benefit our goal. Coming from a swimming background, I have a real passion for the sport, so it may have come a bit more natural for me to take the lead on this thing, and basically I served as cheerleader, but considering the involvement and talents of so many other parents, I feel sure someone else would have stepped up to keep things moving. Certainly I, or anyone else, would not have been successful without the hard work and contributions of time, talent and money of so many others.

How did you end up in charge of the project?

I think Nancy Carrig [the club President before Don] roped me into this. I was already on the NOVA board and in line to serve as NOVA president in 1994.

While you led the charge, you had some able lieutenants. Who were they and what skills/enthusiasm did they offer?

There were many parents that stepped forward with their time, talent and enthusiasm. Norman Downey and Gary LeClair probably were the most significant. I could easily also make the statement “No Norman Downey, no NOVA pool.” As a professional engineer, Norman contributed hours to not only the design and construction side but also to fundraising and long range planning. Gary LeClair opened the doors to potential lending markets. [At the time, the club] had no credit history, and most banks were reluctant to lend to us what was needed. Gary helped to make this happen.

When U of R dramatically cut back NOVA's pool time due to the conversion of the Crenshaw Pool to a theater, the first act of the NOVA creation drama began. You secured time far across town at the Northside YMCA. Did you worry that the team would disintegrate?

It was clear that NOVA could not survive indefinitely at the Northside Y. We actually used that fact as a motivational tool during the campaign to get the new pool built. If, at the time, NOVA had an adequate facility that was in a convenient location for most families, it would have been more difficult to make case for the new pool. Since the Northside Y was neither adequate nor convenient, making the case for the new pool was much simpler.

Was the dream of building the pool part of what kept the team together?

The swimmers kept the team together. The friendships and bond they formed as teammates, along with their success in the pool, provided the inspiration the parents needed to keep moving forward with the pool project.

Procuring West End water was a priority for a mostly West End team. You pursued every possibility, including that of a “bubble” on an existing outdoor pool. What convinced NOVA elders to pursue the "hard shell" [permanent, indoor] facility?

Initially we looked at working with a summer recreation association to bubble their pool for use during the fall, winter and spring, but even at the time, this was seen as a short term solution. Our inability to find a suitable location finally led us to pursue the hard shell approach. Having our own facility where we had control was a very appealing goal.

How many different construction sites were considered, and where were they?

We met with numerous outdoor recreation centers while looking for a pool to bubble. When our attention focused on the permanent facility, we met with representatives from almost every private school in the area as well as J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College. Discussions with Benedictine and The Steward School were extensive before falling through; I believe it was the appeal of a location near Steward that eventually lead us to the current location after we visited two or three other potential building sites in that part of Henrico County.

Detail what you think were the key steps in building the first pool.

As crazy as it may sound our early failures were blessings in disguise, as they were key in getting us to the pool we ultimately built. If we had been successful early on, NOVA would be sharing pool time with a local school or college. Instead, the club has a pool (now pools) all their own.

Finding a suitable location involved inspecting a fairly small number of available tracts that were in the area where we wanted to build and negotiating the land lease. In September, 1994, the board approved moving forward with the Gayton Road site.

Possibly the most imposing task was convincing a bank to give us a loan. I've told folks involved with the building of the second pool that the one thing they had that we did not was a credit history. We received approval for the loan in June, 1995.

Fundraising was critical, and one of the things I've always been proud of was that 100% of the NOVA parents at the time made a financial contribution. We also had some dedicated parents who were willing to co-sign a bridge loan to cover the difference between what we had raised through fundraising, donations and outside contributions and what was needed for the down payment. This enabled us to begin construction in August, 1996.

What part of the construction process was the most difficult?

The site prep started with the removal of trees on August 13, 1996, and we opened on February 4, 1997. To be honest, I do not recall too many construction issues. I'm sure Norman Downey would remember a few. It was a busy time as we were still fundraising, planning for the opening and the various programs we needed to get started as well as recruiting new swimmers in the middle of the season.

What part was the most exhilarating?

High points include receiving word of the financial pledge from Ukrop's [the company made a pledge of $50,000], breaking ground, and, of course, our opening in 1997. Ten days after the pool opened, NOVA held its first dinner/auction around the deck of the new pool. The swimmers had celebrated with their first practice on February 4, and on February 14, the parents held their celebration and raised money at the same time. In July of 1997, we dedicated the pool with a day-long visit from Olympian Janet Evans and an official ribbon cutting ceremony.

NOVA was successful from its very first year (winning a state championship). Then came success on the national level that culminated in a National Championship by 17 year old Kerry O'Hanlon. Was that early success part of your selling process for the new facility?

Kerry's accomplishments were an inspiration to parents and to swimmers. Her success was publicized locally and gave NOVA a resume item that provided a positive narrative for a young club.

In building the pool, you counted every swimmer you possibly could, no matter how transient. Numbers mattered to the lending banks. We began with probably 150 swimmers. How proud are you of the current size of the team [800+]?

Our budget was based on the team growing to over 450 in the first one to two years after construction. We needed to reach that number in order for the club to operate in the black. Credit needs to be given to the NOVA leaders, board members and coaches. They've taken a pretty fragile beginning and strengthened it and maintained an environment for NOVA to grow and prosper. They also continued to plan for the future leading to the construction of the second pool. I'm extremely proud of what we accomplished in 1997 and where NOVA is now. Our campaign theme – “Pool of Dreams: Build it and they will come" was right on the mark.

You had three children in the program. How big a motivation was that in building the pool? How many got to use the new pool?

That's an interesting question, because one of the motivational tools we used was the poem "The Bridge Builder" by Will Allen Dromgoole [read the poem here].  We recognized that building something significant for the future was important even though our own children would have limited or, in some cases, no use of it. In regards to my family, Jason was in the NOVA class of 1996 and never got to train in the pool. Emily was in the class of 1997 and trained in [the pool] her last semester of high school. John was the only one with significant time, as he was in the NOVA class of 2001. I know that my children and their NOVA teammates were proud of what we accomplished. Some of those swimmers now have children of their own in the program and, who knows, someday I may have a grandchild swimming at NOVA.

You were tireless in convincing every parent involved in the program to contribute. How did you convince the truly reluctant?

When going out to potential contributors we wanted to be able to tell them that 100% of our parents had donated. We felt that we could not ask for someone not directly affiliated with NOVA to contribute, unless 100% of our parents were on board. A few parents resisted, and I reminded them that any amount would work. Eventually everyone made a donation.

You swim at NOVA during the daytime. Which roof do you prefer - that first roof or the new one?

I swim where the NOVAFit lanes are open and actually like both pools, though I do think the walls in the newer pool are a bit slippery.

NOVA matters. It has a crew of coaches and a generation of swimmers and their parents. Many championship banners have been hoisted, many honors have been won, many scholarships have been awarded. None of it would have happened without your efforts. You mattered, you were the fulcrum and you provided the tipping point. How proud does that make you feel?

The whole project was very gratifying. I saw my role as a facilitator trying to keep everyone focused on the goal and keep anyone from being discouraged when things did not go our way. The end result was the culmination of hard work from a passionate group of parents.

Following the opening of the pool, an article appeared in Swim Technique magazine highlighting five new pools built across the country. Ours was the smallest, but it was also the only one owned and operated by a club team. Following the article, I received calls from coaches and parents across the country, and even from Canada, asking how they might get their own pool built. I did my best to help, but each team’s circumstances are different. NOVA is still one of the very few teams in the country that can claim ownership and total control of their own facility. I think that's special.