U.S. Olympic trials' pool headed for north Minneapolis aquatic center

OMAHA - As swimmers from across the country raced Monday for spots on this summer's U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo, a Minneapolis contingent scoped out a prize of their own to bring back home: the 50-meter competition pool where it was all happening.

Once the Olympic trials wrap up this weekend in Omaha, some 1.1 million gallons of chlorinated water will be drained from the pool, the walls disassembled and the pool prepped for its second act as the star attraction in the renovation of an old north Minneapolis book bindery into an aquatic center.

Erika Binger, founder and president of V3 Sports, the group driving the project, traveled to Omaha this week with a formidable contingent that included north Minneapolis business and political leaders and the project architect. Also with her were former youth triathletes she once coached who have become cohorts in her quest to transform the Muscle Bound Bindery into a swimming school, community hub and development catalyst.

"There's nothing of this quality" on the North Side, said Analyah Schlaeger dos Santos, a 26-year-old former triathlete who is working with Binger on the project. "There's nothing that offers all of the richness of what we're trying to do. ... Kids in marginalized communities need to feel welcome in a space that they can excel in."

The V3 group watched swimming records fall during this week's competition, snapped photos of former Olympic star Michael Phelps and took a post-competition plunge in the pool. But it's going to be a while before they get a chance to swim in the pool again in Minneapolis.

The pool will go into storage while the group works to raise the $30 million needed for the multiyear project. Most indoor pools are about half the length of the 50-meter Olympic pool, and they're fine for most purposes save training and competing in the sport's highest levels.

And that is Binger's stated goal. The back of her T-shirt on Monday afternoon read: "Inspiring Olympic-sized dreams in Minneapolis."

Binger estimated it will be another five years before splashdown in the pool, and V3's newly-named partnerships director Malik Rucker is aiming for four. In the meantime, the group will be trying to raise $4 million for installation of a smaller practice pool.

Eyes on the street

In the swim world, buying the trials pool — manufactured by Italy-based Myrtha Pools — has become something of a quest for communities. The pool from the 2016 trials in Omaha now resides at the Hulbert Aquatic Center in West Fargo, N.D.

"That's a story that is really compelling to donors," Binger said. "They want to do something tangible, and this is it."

It's also about the intangibles. The history of swimming and swimming pools in the United States is replete with racism. Segregationists would pour acid into integrated pools and build country clubs for whites only.

Dos Santos, a mixed-race woman, and Isaac DeSouza, a 24-year-old Black man, are both Minneapolis natives who met Binger when she coached them as young triathletes. Now dos Santos is using her environmental justice skills for Binger's project, and DeSouza is working on social media.

"Not knowing how to swim in a state surrounded by water is an environmental injustice," dos Santos said.

Dos Santos and DeSouza both credit their mothers with teaching them how to swim when they were young. Both say the sport can be tough for minority kids, but they think the V3 facility can change that by giving them their own home base.

Rucker noted that the proposed facility, located on multiple bus lines near residential neighborhoods, will be within easy reach of North Side kids.

"There's a lack of access to year-round competitive pools, and we'll have two," he said.

Access and transformation are touchstones for project architect Keon Blasingame, of LSE Architects. The Minneapolis native was one of the group still wide-eyed at the private after-hours swim the group got to take in the pool Sunday night.

Blasingame sees a project that can "reinvigorate that corridor with something that's lively and has eyes on the street." He said he wants the building, at 701 Plymouth Av. N., to be on the edge of the street with windows offering sweeping views of downtown, and envisions the project as helping to reconnect the North Side to the rest of the city.

"The urban fabric has been irreparably damaged by so many things," he said, citing redlining residential districts and freeways that have ripped through the neighborhoods.

Between sips of beer and bites of burgers at a reception by Myrtha pool officials at a sports bar near the trials venue, the V3 group chatted with Cullen Jones, who took home four medals from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and was the first Black American to own a world record.

Jones, Speedo's philanthropic sales ambassador, has traveled the world preaching the joy and importance of learning to swim. V3 brought him to the University of Minnesota for a clinic in 2018.

He said he's seen progress inching up as more young people of color learn to swim, even if it isn't yet apparent at the highest level, the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha. He wants learning to swim to become a rite of passage for all kids.

"The way Australians think of swimming is the way we think of driving — everyone learns to do it," Jones said.

Even so, University of Minnesota social justice professor Samuel Myers Jr. called swimming "the last outpost of whiteness in Minnesota." A collegiate and lifelong swimmer himself, he has written about the sport's inequities, including persistent disparities in drowning rates between White and minority kids.

While Myers applauds Binger's work, he said there's much to overcome in the sport's legacy of racism.

"I think the real work starts the moment you put the water in the pool," he said.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson