How Windsor became ‘the city that could’ and helped change swimming in Canada By: Callum ng

It’s a Wednesday night in Windsor and thousands of fans perch in a darkened building, humming with anticipation.

The pool sits still.

A spotlight shoots across to one corner of the quiet deck. The announcer’s booming voice breaks the silence: “Please welcome the athletes in the championship final of the women's 100 metre backstroke.”

Chatter turns into cheers as hometown swimmer Kylie Masse is introduced in Lane 4.

“All of a sudden, it kind of erupted,” Masse would recall later.

During the race, the Canadian turns at the 50-metre mark in third place, then powers over the final two lengths to touch for the silver medal.

The crowd is delighted.

A 20-year-old from LaSalle, a bedroom community next to Windsor, has won a medal at world championships, minutes from where she grew up.

Kylie Masse, 100-m Backstroke Silver Medallist, 13th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Credit: Kevin Jarrold

As she emerges from the pool, Masse smiles broadly.

“It’s awesome,” Masse said to reporters after the race.

There was also a sense of pride floating in the humid air that night.

Months and even years before Masse rippled the touchpad, an entire city had a vision and set a course that would bring the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) to Windsor, and change aquatic sport in this country, forever.

Kylie Masse, 100-m Backstroke, 13th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Credit: Kevin Jarrold

It began with one passionate city leader, and continued with another.

In 2009, long-time mayor of Windsor Eddie Francis (in office 2003-2014) was at the International Children’s Games in Athens, Greece.

After the event, a group of swimmers and their parents from Windsor cornered him at the hotel with a hopeful message.

“They shared with me how difficult it was for them to develop professionally as swimmers in our city [Windsor] because we didn’t have the facilities,” Francis says.

Among the group was a then 13-year-old: Kylie Masse.

She and others explained how a lack of pools led to long drives down Highway 401, and even crossing the border to the United States. (Windsor sits across the Detroit River from nearby Detroit).

“Their stories left an impression on me,” Francis recalls.

He decided a new pool was necessary to help swim clubs in the city develop their athletes, in the same way that ice rinks and soccer fields helped other sports.

So a shimmering new aquatic facility was planned at a spectacular location on Windsor’s riverfront, a few blocks from the downtown core.

Current mayor of Windsor, Drew Dilkens, was a city councillor when the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre opened its doors in 2013.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens speaking at the closing ceremonies of the 13th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Credit: Simon Edwards

Dilkens says city planners went to the lengths of flying in representatives from the four major pool-based sports: swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, and water polo.

The reps were asked what a new facility would need in order to make it a hosting destination for their particular sport.

The Centre includes a 10-lane 50-metre pool, a dive tank, and a water park; and made a bold statement to drivers along Riverside Drive that the city was and is committed to aquatics.

“What people forget to see is the level of work and the effort and the sacrifices that are made,” Francis says of the swimmers and other athletes.

“What I wanted to do as a community was position our city to help our athletes get there and to say to them, we’re there with you.”

Francis says the building was also part of the bid strategy for hosting the 2013 International Children’s Games, the same competition he attended in 2009.

“I was always looking forward. I didn’t want to just build a facility and not have anything else to fill the facility with,” Francis says.

For example, each year since 2014, the dive tank has held a FINA World Series stop, an elite event involving the world’s best divers.

Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre

The new aquatic centre was only the beginning for Mayor Eddie Francis and Windsor’s city councillors.

With the downtown pool in the works, it was time to think even bigger and consider bringing the world swimming championships to Windsor.

It would be no small feat. Hosting almost 1,000 elite swimmers from more than 160 countries would count as the biggest international sport event the city had ever seen.

And with it came serious considerations.

Dilkens was a swimmer in high school, and shares a love for the water, but according to him the hefty price tag was a lot to take on.

And Windsor would be by far the smallest city to host the event in the 2000s. When compared to massive metropolitan centres such as Moscow, Russia (host in 2002), and Shanghai (host in 2006), the Windsor Metro Area, at around 320,000 citizens, is tiny.

While Windsor may be small, it’s determined. The community’s leaders decided to go for it.

“You know what? Sometimes you have to take yourself outside of your comfort zone and the mayor at the time [Francis] thought it was right for the city and so did the majority of city council and we all agreed to do it,” says Dilkens.

In December of 2012, on the eve of the same competition in Istanbul, Turkey, FINA announced that Windsor had won the bidding process for the 2016 championships.

A Canadian city better known for hockey and manufacturing had beat out Hong Kong and United Arab Emirates to put itself on the swimming map.

“Having an event of this size in the city, you had to think out of the box and you had to have a really creative city to do it,” says Ahmed El-Awadi, Chief Executive Officer of Swimming Canada.

The selection was validation for the years of work Francis, Dilkens, and others had put toward swimming and aquatic sport in Windsor.

“The event was FINA endorsing our community as being a community that developed world-class athletes,” says Francis.

WFCU Centre, Photo Credit: Kevin Jarrold

It’s the evening of Nov. 18, 2016 at the WFCU Centre, a few weeks before athletes were scheduled to arrive for the 13th short course world swimming championships.

Following an Ontario Hockey League win by the major junior Windsor Spitfires against the Sarnia Sting in overtime, a team began pulling apart the hockey rink to make way for a competition pool.

The work had to be done quickly but carefully, because it’s a precise and complicated affair, and that’s where Myrtha Pools played an invaluable role.

Myrtha Pools has become well known for their ability to put world-class pools almost anywhere. The company built the main competition pool and training tank for Rio 2016, and has built permanent structures all over the world.

Myrtha can build just about everything: from Windsor’s amazing Family Aquatic Complex to the warm-up pool that was added permanently to the WFCU Centre. They’re also responsible for the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre pools, the biggest major aquatic construction in Canada in decades.

A team from Myrtha Pools assembled the competition basin for worlds out of stainless steel panels to within a fingernail of 25 metres, all while construction on the surrounding elements took place.

For the worlds, a state-of-the-art filtration system and water heater were brought in and installed. After about 10 days of diligent work, the Centre was transformed and ready to welcome the world.

“This building [WFCU Centre] was built as a multi-purpose building,” says Don Sadler, the project manager for the conversion from ice to water.

He says the WFCU Centre accommodated the pool well, although they had to tweak the ventilation system to ensure the humidity was managed. The air temperature was also increased to 27 degrees Celsius, for the comfort of the swimmers.

“This event is unique to North America and is certainly unique to Windsor,” says Sadler.

In addition to the competition, the FINA Convention, Medical Congress, and Coaches Golden Clinic were held around the same time.

According to Mayor Dilkens, the tourism demands were almost overwhelming. Every hotel room in the Windsor area was booked, including 300 across the river in Detroit.

WFCU Centre Community Pool

The temporary marvel wasn’t the only Myrtha Pool at the WFCU Centre for Windsor’s worlds. The city also decided to build a permanent 25-metre training pool under the same roof.

World-class swimmers need a warm-down tank between races, and the new six-lane 25-metre pool lives on to be enjoyed by the community as another legacy from the event.

“Swimming is one of the great sports because you can do it year round; it doesn’t matter if it’s raining, it doesn’t matter if it’s snowing, it’s year round and it’s available and it appeals to all ages,” says Dilkens

“You build a pool and everyone uses it.”

And there truly is tangible excitement around swimming in Windsor.

Perhaps bolstered by hosting the championships, plus Canadian success at the most recent summer Olympics where the national team won six medals, learn-to-swim programs have healthy registration according to city officials.

“We find that a lot of time after Olympic years interest not only in high-performance sport but also in the learn-to-swim programs increases,” says Jen Knights, manager of the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre.

“Also with folks knowing about the worlds coming to Windsor I think it puts swimming top of mind for them and we’ve definitely seen good numbers in all of our learn to swim programs.”

Cover picture Photo Credit: Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island

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