They call it liquid gold.
From the creatively designed architecture that surrounds it to the gold medal swimmers and water polo players that train in its waters, the pool at Chelsea Piers Connecticut has been churning out champions since they took their first plunge there in 2012.
The Olympic-size pool is housed in the $50 million, 400,000-square-foot facility, which also boasts two indoor ice rinks, 12 squash courts, seven indoor tennis courts, a rock wall and a heck of a lot more set on almost 33 acres in Stamford.
In an award-winning feat of engineering (with construction managed by the A.P. Construction Co. and design by architects James G. Rogers and Associates), truncated columns and inverted king trusses were added to shift weight sideways in order to accommodate a large open space for the pool and at the same time support rooftop tennis courts and an indoor playing field.
Now the large facility has become home to an elite aquatics club that’s been garnering a lot of attention as well. For the third year in a row, it was recognized as a Silver Medal club on the USA Swimming Club Excellence list. It has won state championships multiple times, regularly has athletes selected for the nationals and the Youth Olympic Games team and trains water polo players who qualify for the Olympic Development Program National Championships.
“Records are being set left and right,” says Erica Bates, vice president of corporate communications at Chelsea Piers. “What’s in the water in that pool? You jump in and come out a champion.”
Accomplished backstrokers and breaststrokers are certainly winning accolades, but the stroke of genius that first contributed to a winning club was the hiring of aquatics director and Stamford native Jamie Barone.
Before returning to his hometown for the job, Barone coached at the famed North Baltimore Aquatics Club where he trained under Bob Bowman, longtime coach of all-time Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps.
Barone himself competed at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Trials and, for three years, was ranked in the top 100 in the world for his performance in the breaststroke. He was Rookie of the Meet at the 2003 Summer National Championship and won in 2006 in the 4×100 medley relay. In Baltimore, he had been honing his coaching philosophy and establishing a network.
But when he heard there was going to be a 50-meter pool a half-mile from where he grew up, he couldn’t resist.
Barone was hired a year before the pool opened, in 2011. By then, impressive blueprints were already drawn up, but he was able to have some input on the nuance of the pool’s design. “I made some requests.”
Add Bates, “He had this vision of what he wanted. He knew what to build and built it.”
And, Barone notes, “I was fortunate enough they said ‘go do that’ with very little restrictions.” He dove right in. The flexible space includes a movable bulkhead and bleachers and there’s a 30-foot movable floor, the first in the country.
The award-winning pool and program has a coaching staff that includes Olympic Trials Qualifiers, former national and international competitors and NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) qualifiers.
Barone points to his coaching team as the biggest reason for success.
“We have six full-time coaches that work with the team who all have a similar philosophy,” he says. “Three of them I coached in Baltimore. I hired them and brought them up here. And we’ve spent the last seven years cultivating a culture that’s breeding successful people.”
Barone’s philosophy and program is unique in that his competitive athletes only train six times a week, no double practices. It was a decision he made at the onset. “Kids have too much pressure as is,” he says. “We want them to be motivated to come every day.”
“Even for all younger swimmers, we offer more practice in a week than we recommend you attend. We don’t want 10-year-olds exclusively swimming.”
Barone himself played five or six sports growing up. He’s learned it’s a winning formula, but recognizes few other clubs encourage it. “So, we will be the flexible ones and give you every opportunity to play multiple sports.”
That decision has paid off. “The health of the team speaks to the philosophy,” he says.
Bates adds, “From the moment (Barone) started it, his success was unbelievable. He works on the complete athlete. He says ‘Bring me a well-fed, well-rested athlete and I’ll do the rest.”
But swimming is not the only success story. Chelsea Piers Athletic Club (CP-AC) Water Polo (formerly Greenwich Water Polo) is also ranked one of the fastest-growing clubs in the Northeast. Water polo director Paul Ramalay has coached over a decade at the National Junior Olympics. After only five years, the club has the most representatives of any in the tristate area qualifying as Academic All-Americans.
Last spring, five players were selected for the USA National Team Selection Camp in California, which hosts the top players in the country for the purpose of determining who will make Team USA for international competition. That is the second highest number coming from a club in the Northeast.
CP-AC athletes have gone on to careers in swimming and water polo and won scholarships to schools such as Georgetown, Princeton and Notre Dame universities and Dartmouth College.
“I am lucky enough I get to coach hard-working, smart, passionate, motivated kids. Just good people,” Barone says. He feels so lucky, he often wonders, “Does the sport create these amazing individuals or is that (who) is attracted to the sport?”
That excellence is the thing that has always drawn Barone to the sport of swimming. Coaching the young athletes at Chelsea Piers and helping to propel them toward possible Olympic and collegiate careers is just where he wants to be. But there is one thing he does miss about training as an athlete.
“The thrill of the competition,” he says without hesitation. “Stepping up on the blocks and knowing you have only yourself to rely on.”
But he’s beyond that now. “The commitment to doing it well is great,” he says with empathy for his young athletes. “But knowing we’ve had a hand in their development is priceless.”
For more, visit chelseapiersct.com.