How Lucas Oil Stadium turned into a swimming pool for the U.S. Olympic Trials

Three years ago, Shana Ferguson stood on the pool deck in Omaha, Neb., at the U.S. Olympic Trials, thrilled to be staring out at the crowd of more than 12,000 swimming fans. But she dared to dream bigger.

Like, a lot bigger.

“What would this look like in a football stadium?” Ferguson wondered aloud.

Three years later, after countless meetings regarding electrical engineering, plumbing and drainage, wonderment has finally given way to reality. Ferguson, USA Swimming’s chief commercial officer, and her team of vendors are just days away from kicking off the most important swimming meet on American soil this quadrennial in front of what they expect to be the largest crowd ever to attend a swim meet.

The upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials are set to run from June 15-23 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, making it the first time the Olympic qualifying meet will be held in a football stadium. Event organizers hope to see a crowd close to 30,000 for the first night of finals, which would shatter the previous world record.

It will be a spectacle — to put it mildly.

“This is the first time this has ever been attempted in the world,” said Mark Dodd, the president of Dodd Technologies, which essentially served as USA Swimming’s general contractor for the event. “There will be a lot of people who are going to come to this and take a look at what we built. We’re going to be the model.”

Added Ferguson: “We need to make sure to give these athletes an amazing experience that will be, for many of them, the pinnacle of their careers. We have a responsibility to make this a really wickedly cool environment for them.”

It all started, unsurprisingly, with the pool itself, which was built over the past three weeks, with construction beginning on May 12 and wrapping up this week. Nearly two million gallons of water were brought in from the nearby White River; it will then be held in tanks that allow it to be constantly circulated, cleaned and chlorinated before it filters in and out of the three pools that have been built.

“When you watch this on television, it will look like an in-ground pool, like the pool is on floor level,” Ferguson said. “But we’re putting an above-ground pool on the cement and building a deck around it. The pool with the decking will actually end up striking the first 10 rows of seats.”

Elevating the pool deck and fans’ perceived ground level creates enough depth for the three required pools. One is the 50-meter-long, three-meter-deep competition pool — the standard depth for elite swimming — where all eyes will be trained for the nine nights; the other two are warmup pools, which will be separated from the competition pool by a curtain at the 50-yard line.

Myrtha Pools, a company that specializes in constructing and dismantling large-scale temporary pools, built the competition pool and two warmup pools. Spear Corp. in nearby Roachdale, Ind., has handled all of the plumbing, pumps and filtration. Dodd’s team is specifically in charge of the decking, the scoreboard, the signage and all other accoutrements that make the event work.

“Really, our biggest challenge was trying to figure out what is traditionally a close-up spectator sport in a small natatorium and scaling it so that it works in a space of this size,” Dodd said.

In short, USA Swimming is trying to keep up with its surging demand. This event continues to grow — and outgrow its venues — seemingly every Olympic cycle. The last time trials were in Indianapolis, in 2000, the event was held at the 4,700-seat Indiana University Natatorium. Trials then went outdoors to Long Beach, Calif., for 2004, and then moved to a basketball arena in downtown Omaha, Neb., from 2008 through 2021. (Myrtha Pools also built the pool in Long Beach and the four pools in Omaha.) In 2016, nearly 200,000 fans attended 15 sold-out sessions. The venue could hold about 13,000 for swimming events.

Lucas Oil Stadium

The main pool is shown under construction at Lucas Oil Stadium, with temporary seating to the left and the warmup pool structure beyond that. (Photo courtesy of USA Swimming)

Lucas Oil Stadium can seat way more than that. Its swimming configuration allows for a capacity of around 30,000 with regular stadium seats facing the competition pool as well as some 20 rows of movable seats that will be in front of the midfield curtain to create a fully enclosed oval of fans. Organizers have planned theme nights (including celebrations for Father’s Day and Juneteenth, which fall during the event). They are also partnering with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and WNBA’s Fever to help draw new fans who may not already know much about swimming.

While there will certainly be seats far from the water’s surface, Dodd said the sight lines for more than 25,000 spectators seats are quite good.

“I don’t necessarily know that it’ll be weird or strange, but it’ll be different,” said University of Virginia coach Todd DeSorbo, who will serve as the head U.S. women’s team coach in Paris. “The more people, the better. And I think the kids will feed off the energy of the crowd.”

Those night sessions — where fans will see top-two finishers punch their tickets to Paris — will be memorable, event organizers say. There will be a 50-foot-tall video board behind athletes as they are announced and walk onto the pool deck ahead of each final. Ferguson compared it to player introductions for “Monday Night Football”; Dodd said it will be a level of lighting and production similar to WWE. There will also be a center-hung scoreboard (similar to basketball arenas) because the scoring and timing need to be centered over the pool, not where video boards are located in football stadiums along the perimeter.

Perhaps the best benefit of the football stadium is the warmup pool setup. In Omaha, the warmup pools were located at the convention center due to space constraints inside the arena. In Indianapolis, they’ll be a curtain away from the competition pool.

“The thing I’m most looking forward to is actually having space,” said University of Texas head coach Bob Bowman, who famously coached Michael Phelps throughout his career and will again take a crop of Olympic hopefuls to trials. “In Omaha, it got so crowded that I just stopped going into the main pool and watching the races because I couldn’t get over there quick enough to help people warm up and warm down. So, I would just watch it on the big screen in the warmup pool.

“This is going to be great for participants.”

In what Ferguson calls the back-of-house athlete experience, there will be quiet areas, massages, therapy dogs, nutritional assistance, mental health experts and even a video game room.

“So much of this is nerves and hopes and dreams,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got to ensure even in a big stadium that we are still giving the athletes and coaches a feeling of intimacy, where they can have quiet and solitude and focus so that it isn’t just big lights and Hollywood and excitement.”

In short, this is not just sticking a pool in a football stadium and figuring out where and how to drain the water. It’s a new use of a venue that has to serve myriad purposes for multiple stakeholders at the same time.

And in a week, it will be put to the ultimate test — just like the best of the best American swimmers will be.

Lucas Oil Stadium rendering

An artist’s rendering of the finished product, complete with fans. Lucas Oil Stadium will be the first football stadium to host swimming’s U.S. Olympic Trials. (Courtesy of USA Swimming)

(Top illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Courtesy of USA Swimming, Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire via Getty)

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