A Culture of Swimming in the Desert


Skyline pool (large)

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Soaring above the dry deserts and hot climates of Arizona, you’d never think a rich swimming culture existed in the Grand Canyon state. But the idea that beautiful, pristine outdoor 50m pool facilities exist in an area where the average temperature reaches nearly 106 degrees in July makes sense. Arizona gets hot. People want to cool off. Backyard pools become part of the culture. And thus, so does competitive swimming.

Next month, April 11-13th, the Arena Grand Prix circuit returns to Arizona for the first time since the late 1990s for the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa presented by VisitMesa.com. The city of Mesa, just east of Tempe and Phoenix, will welcome the world’s best swimmers for the meet.

When you think of Mesa, the first thing you probably think is, “It’s hot there.” Which is like saying, “It’s cold in Alaska.” Temperatures will average around a high of 85 degrees in April. But temperatures and heat indexes are not the only story in the greater Mesa area.

Back in 2008, the Arizona State men’s swimming team was cut. The collegiate swim team trains in Tempe -- just minutes from Mesa. When announcing the cut, the school cited budget concerns. The swimmers were floored. The coaches were shocked. The team was the highest profile cut swim team since the men’s UCLA team was cut back in 1994. ASU had just acquired a potentially Top 5 recruiting class. The announcement was especially devastating because it was before the 2008 Olympic Trials. Before Trials, there was excitement and momentum. And then, like so many other collegiate men’s swimming teams, the ASU men’s swimming program was cut.

One week after that announcement in 2008, I visited Arizona State. I spoke with coaches and a few swimmers. They were not passive about being cut. They were fired up, ready to fight back and save their program. They were going to get organized. I spoke with Nick Brunelli, one of the best swimmers to come out of Arizona State, who was the spokesperson for much of the publicity at the time. They were devastated, but they were going to find a way to bring the team back. And eventually, that’s exactly what happened. The swimmers at Arizona State raised money, support, and funds from both local and national groups. They held fundraisers. They reached out online.

Almost five years later, the Arizona State men’s swim team still exists. This was the first season Arizona State had a full coaches roster. This weekend, they will take to the Pac-12 Championships. It’s a sight many who visited Arizona State days after that devastating 2008 announcement would never have thought would happen. ASU continues on.

118 miles south of Arizona State, the University of Arizona men’s and women’s swim teams are listed among the premiere programs in the country. In 2008, the same year Arizona State announced the cutting of their men’s program, the Arizona Wildcats swept both the men’s and women’s NCAA titles. Later, at the Olympic Trials, a plethora of Arizona-based swimmers qualified for the Olympics, including Amanda Beard, Lacey Nymeyer, and Matt Grevers. Since then, the head coach of Arizona, Frank Busch, has been named USA Swimming’s National Team Director. In London, he established a culture of togetherness, cohesiveness, and team spirit. That spirit was on full display both in and out of the pool, from the sweeping Olympic medal count success to the “Call Me Maybe” viral video.

Though the Arizona and Arizona State swim teams have had vastly different paths the previous five years, both have proven there is a rich culture of swimming in the hot, dry climates of Arizona. The local support for the ASU men’s swim team has resulted in the complete reversal of the cutting of a collegiate sports team. And the family atmosphere and cohesiveness of the Arizona men’s and women’s swim team has resulted in NCAA Championships, Olympic qualifiers, and a thriving post-graduate training hub where many top-level talent athletes still train today.

When age group swimmers congregate in Mesa, Arizona to witness some of the world’s best swimming at the next installment of the Arena Grand Prix Series, it’s not just about fast swimming. It’s about a swimming culture unique to anywhere else in the country. Through the grassroots foundation of backyard pool culture in nearly every other household in Arizona, competitive swimming is one of the highlights in this 100 degree state. Swimming World has its offices nearby in Phoenix. Arizona State and Arizona each have programs defined by success in different ways. Some of the most important leaders of our sport, including Frank Busch, have called Arizona home for years.

For the first time in over 15 years, an Arena Grand Prix Series swim meet returns to Arizona. The Arena Grand Prix at Mesa presented by VisitMesa.com should prove not only to be about fast swimming, but the communities in this desert climate that make this fast swimming possible.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine.