April 21, 2023
Making A Splash: The Pan Am Pool
Nothing brings communities together more than a grand event, especially a sporting event. Everyone gets together to paint their faces, wear their team gear and cheer on their favourites in hopes that they will bring home the trophy! Although Winnipeg’s population is smaller than many other cities, it has big sporting ambitions. From hockey and soccer to curling and football, we are always enthusiastic and ready to host the best of the best as they go for the gold. While we might not be welcoming the Olympics any time soon, Winnipeg does have the distinction of hosting the Pan American Games, not once, but twice. With big events comes big sporting facilities – and so came to be Winnipeg’s Pan Am Pool.
The Pan American Games were first discussed during the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, United States. International Olympic Committee members from Latin America suggested regional games for the Americas. The 1940 Pan American Sports Congress planned the first Pan American Games for 1942 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but the event had to be postponed until 1951 due to World War II. With the Pan American Sports Organization officially established by the International Olympic Committee in 1948, Buenos Aires opened the inaugural Pan American Games on February 25, 1951. A multi-sport event, there were 2,513 athletes from over 20 countries competing in 18 sports. Since then, the event has been held every four years, always in the year preceding the summer Olympics, becoming the world’s third largest multi-sport games. A winter Pan American Games was held in 1990 in Las Leñas, Argentina, but was never repeated due to a lack of interest.
Canada did not officially compete in the first Pan American Games but did give a demonstration in synchronized swimming. At the time, Commonwealth countries were not part of the Pan American Sports Organization. But Canada has never missed the event since, and along with Mexico, is the only country to have hosted the Games three times. The Games first came to Canada in 1967, hosted by Winnipeg! This 5th edition of the event saw 29 countries and 2,361 athletes participating. Winnipeg would go on to host the 13th edition of the Games in 1999, while Toronto hosted the 17th edition in 2015.
When the Pan American Games first came to Winnipeg, it was a festive time as 1967 was Canada’s Centennial Year. The city was expecting 2,451 athletes from 29 countries to arrive and participate in 29 sports. To accommodate swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming events, a new pool was to be built – the Pan Am Pool at 25 Poseidon Bay. But when the costs of hosting the Games kept rising, the plan for an indoor pool was almost replaced with a cheaper outdoor pool. With the help of all three levels of government, the indoor pool which took up about a third of the Games budget, came to fruition.
Construction of the Pan Am Pool began in 1966, making use of precast concrete. It was designed by the firm of Smith Carter Parkin, who are also behind structures like the Richardson Building, Centennial Concert Hall, Canadian Grain Commission Building and more. An imposing building with a box-like massing, the pool embodies the Brutalist style with the extensive use of raw, unfinished concrete – which was the latest trend in Canadian architecture at the time. At the same time, one would have been forgiven for mistaking the pool for a grand concert hall, with its entire front facade made up of glass panels. Costing $2.6 million to construct, the Pan Am Pool officially opened in the nick of time on Friday, July 21st, 1967, just one day before the Games began!
The swimming pool itself measured 75 feet by 225 feet, with room for up to 1,223 people to splash about at the same time! In addition, there was also room for 2,300 spectators at the facility. If the weather was fine, you could always go outside to catch some rays on the 80 foot by 80 foot sun deck located just south-east of the building. To accommodate all the swimmers and sunbathers were 1017 lockers and over 65 showers, but by far the most spectacular feature of the Pan Am Pools was the concrete diving tower. With platforms at three, five, seven and a half, and ten metres, would you be brave enough to jump off the top?
In the 1967 Pan American Games, Canadian athletes placed second, winning 11 gold, 36 silver, and 43 bronze medals. It was the United States that won the most medals, setting many world records in the glorious new Pan Am Pool. And the action did not stop after the Games were over – called “A Mecca for Canadian Swimmers,” the pool would have the highest attendance and revenue of any indoor pool in North America for the first seven years it was open. It would go on to host all of Canada’s major aquatic competitions, and was a popular place for Winnipeggers to go for a dip.
By 1999, Winnipeg was ready to host the Pan American Games once again. As the Pan Am Pool was called back into action, the city was swimming with salmon coloured volunteer attire. The pool was expanded in preparation for the Games, with additions to the east and west sides, with a new entryway built and a second swimming pool constructed. Over 40 countries were in attendance, with the Canadians winning 196 medals in total (64 gold medals, 52 silver and 80 bronze), placing third in the overall medal count. This was an increase of 19 medals from the 1995 Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
In 2018 the Pan Am Pool shut down for $3.4 million of renovations, including a new ceiling, wall panels and lighting above the main pool; new paint in certain areas; a new audio system and removing asbestos in the ceiling. The entire facility, including the main pool, officially opened to the public on January 2, 2019. Today the facility includes three pools (two competitive/leisure and one kiddie) as well as an indoor track and two weight rooms. The two competitive pools are eight-lane 50-metre tanks with the ability to adjust its length for competitions of 50 metres or 25 metres with a movable bulkhead.
Not only has the inside of the facility evolved but so has the outside. The small grouping of coniferous trees on the front lawn was planted in 1996 by the Rotary Clubs of Winnipeg, known as “Pan Am Pool Forest.” A Winnipeg Free Press article suggests it “represent a connection between the natural world and an appreciation for the skills that athletes develop.” The forest has now been joined by a large play structure, always full of kids running around with huge smiles on their faces.
While walking around the track inside the Pan Am Pool, you once would find Olympic medals, photographs, art and posters from the Olympic games and other sporting events. These belonged to Canada’s Aquatic Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened at the same time as the pool in 1967. Unfortunately, in May 2006, after 40 years, the museum was forced to close and the artifacts were moved into storage when the City of Winnipeg could no longer afford to insure them. Unable to afford a $4 million insurance bill themselves, the museum had to be shut down until a new home could be found.
Fun fact: On December 14, 1970, the Aquatic Hall of Fame and Museum earned a patent and became the oldest Hall of Fame in Canada!
Turns out, a new home was not so far away! After a few years of negotiations, in 2014, the city and the museum reached an agreement for the use of the Royal Gallery for the next 50 years. The Royal Gallery/Canadian Aquatic Hall of Fame is located at the main entrance of the Pan Am Pool. Opening in 1999, the 3,000 square foot gallery was designed by Ralph W. Schilling to look like the pow of a ship. The gallery was dedicated by HRH the Princess Anne during the Pan American Games that year. The Canadian Aquatic Hall of Fame held a “pre-grand opening” during the 2017 Canada Summer Games. The museum will eventually feature over 100 inductees and 3,000 aquatic artifacts that celebrate Canada’s history of swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, and water polo.
The first swim team to call the Pan Am Pool home was the Cardinal Swim Club. The pool now hosts the Manta Swim Club, the Manitoba Marlins Swim Club, and the Manitoba Masters Aquatic Club. Aside from swim clubs, the Pan Am Pool also hosts two water polo teams: the Neptune Water Polo Club and Bushido Water Polo.
Right next to the Pan Am Pool sits the Pan Am Clinic, a sports injury clinic. It opened in 1979 and was privately operated until the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority took over in 2001. In 1985, it officially opened the location at 75 Poseidon Bay, and a year later, the building doubled in size. By 1993, it went through a second expansion bringing it to a total of 20,000 square feet. In 2003, it doubled in size again to 40,000 square feet with upgrading its current facilities and adding a few more clinics, procedure rooms, operating rooms and offices. Another year later, an additional 10,000 square feet was added to host MRI, a pain clinic, and a plastic surgery clinic. Between 2005 to 2008, the Pan Am Clinic Foundation was created bringing it to a total of 72,000 square feet. New programs were added like a minor injury clinic for kids, research and education labs, and office/retail spaces. In 2014 it also opened a concussion program at the MTS Iceplex.
The Pan Am Pool and Clinic have brought many great opportunities to Winnipeg, for sports, for health and for fun. Our community and history have grown through events like the Pan American Games, Canada Games, local championships and the aquatic museum, which unite us in celebration. We are excited to see when the Pan American Games will make their appearance in Winnipeg once again to cheer on our Canadian athletes at the magnificent Pan Am Pool. And while we wait for the Games to return, be sure to cheer on our athletes in Santiago, Chile, when the Pan American Games are taking place from October 20th to November 5th, 2023!
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Written by Heritage Winnipeg.