The history of Creighton's swimming pool

Jun 09, 2024

Like most things at Creighton, the KFC pool is full of interesting historical tidbits if you look close enough.

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Images of the Creighton swimming pool.

The new pool spells the last word in athletic luxury.

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Rendering of the planned fitness area in the Kiewit Center.

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By Micah Mertes

The space formerly occupied by the Kiewit Fitness Center pool is getting a new look.

Over the summer, the pool — closed since 2008 — will be converted to a newly reimagined fitness area, nearly three times the size of the current space. All exercise equipment in the Rasmussen Center will soon be moved into the KFC, consolidating Creighton fitness into a single facility.

The upgrade is the latest in a long line of changes to keep the KFC as good as new. For nearly 50 years, the KFC has been one of the most popular spots on campus, with tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff using its courts, track, weights, nets, hoops and, for a time, its swimming pool.

We celebrated the KFC’s history with an exhaustive tribute (did you know Ben Folds once made a vegetable smoothie in the men’s locker room?), which you can read here. But we also wanted to give the pool its due. Like most things at Creighton, the KFC pool — as well as the Old Gym’s pool and the University’s swimming team — is full of interesting historical tidbits if you look close enough.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Caution: Please wait 30 minutes to swim after reading.

Front of the Old Gym.

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Note: Everything that follows and all stories like this are only possible because of the great work of the University Archives and Special Collections department.

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The brand-new Old Gym and pool

The KFC and the KFC pool were, of course, preceded by the Old Gym and the Old Gym pool.

When the Old Gym (then known as just the Gym) opened in 1916, it was the talk of the town — a $150,000 beauty complete with such amenities as bowling alleys, a billiards room and a heated, filtered swimming pool.

Here are students and alumni bowling and playing pool in the Old Gym

And here they are using a billiard table for a game of table tennis.

And here’s the original layout of the Old Gym’s first floor.

Layout of the Old Gym's first floor.

Outside of the Old Gym’s gymnasium, the building’s crown jewel was the pool, located on the east side of the ground floor.

At 75x30 feet, with depths between 3.5 and 9 feet, with glazed white tiles, bronze ladders, a springboard and 10,000 gallons of steam-coil-warmed water, the pool “spelled the last word in athletic luxury,” as the Omaha World-Herald put it at the time.

The first plunge was reportedly taken by alumnus Tom McShane, BA’1899, who appears to have been one of Creighton’s first football players.  

When the pool opened, the Omaha Daily News called it the second-largest school pool in the country.

Swimming pool in the Old Gym.

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First meet, first team

Early swim team in the Old Gym.

When exactly Creighton officially got a competitive swim team is debatable and depends mostly on one’s definitions of “team” and “competition.” Swim teams appear to have often straddled the line between recreational, intramural, club, varsity and intercollegiate.

Yet the date of the University's first real swim meet feels pretty solid. On March 10, 1923, Creighton’s pool hosted its inaugural meet, inviting area schools and groups to compete, including the University of Nebraska and the Omaha Athletic Club. With the meet, Creighton announced its intent to form a proper team competing in a proper league.

A few years later, in 1928, Creighton Athletics entered the Missouri Valley Conference, raising hopes for an intercollegiate swim team.

Unfortunately, the Athletic Board voted against starting a swim team (and a baseball team) in the school’s first year in the MVC. But ... the following year, the board approved the program, inviting Pete Wendell (a well-regarded swimming, diving and life-saving instructor) to coach.

Wendell said he expected Creighton to become one of the strongest college teams in the Midwest and a top contender in the MVC.

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Sharing the pool  

As Creighton formed its first intercollegiate men’s swimming team, women were "invading the pool.” At the time, Creighton’s male students and the small but growing number of female students weren’t allowed to use the Old Gym facilities at the same time. Following a student petition, the Athletic Department opened the gym, the game rooms and the pool to women a few nights a week.

Coeds swimming and playing ping-pong in the Old Gym.

It appears that women’s ease of access to the Old Gym pool ebbed and flowed over the years. As late as 1958, they were still having to fight for time in the pool.  

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The Bluejay Mermen

That was the visually evocative unofficial name for Creighton’s swimming and diving team in the 1930s. (They were also sometimes referred to as the Hilltop Mermen or the Jay Tankmen.)

The bar to join the team was low. Besides knowing how to swim, the only requirements were passing grades and at least a year of Omaha residency. “Inexperience need be no disqualification,” said Coach Wendell.

Before long, Creighton was hosting its own meets in the Old Gym pool. The Bluejay Mermen continued to improve, and the sport became further entrenched at Creighton. Before long, the Mermen formed their own fraternity, believed to be the first and only “exclusive aquatic fraternity in the country.” It was also Creighton’s first athletic fraternity. 

Here's the 1930-1931 men's swim team.

1930 swim team in Old Gym.
1930 swim team in Old Gym.

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Post-war return

The swim team in the 1950s.

In the 1940s, the Creighton intercollegiate swim team’s track record was spotty, at best. In the archives, it’s often unclear when the team was a team and when it was just the idea of a team.

In 1948, a new student (and former Air Corps lieutenant in the South Pacific) became the team’s captain and coach. Four months later, the team was disbanded due to the swimmers not showing up for practice.

The swim team wouldn’t reform until 1958, when newly hired coach Bill O’Hearn led the Mermen in the first intercollegiate swim meet in about a decade, wherein Creighton lost to Fort Hays State University of Hays, Kansas. With the program’s return, Creighton now had seven intercollegiate sports — basketball, baseball, track, golf, tennis, rifle and, at long last, swimming.

Yet as you’ll see throughout this feature, the aquatic life at Creighton has always roiled tumultuous. The program’s fortunes could sink or swim from day to day.

Last call headline for swimmers in Creightonian.

By 1960, Creighton no longer had enough swimmers to form a team. (Creighton Prep had the same problem despite having a former Olympian swimmer — Rex Aubrey — for a coach.)

Then Athletic Director Red McManus said they would scrap the intercollegiate program unless enough students signed up for the team. The Athletic Department issued a last call for swimmers, and, at the last minute, 20 prospective team members expressed interest. The program was saved.

But … enthusiasm soon diminished. By 1962, Creighton Athletics was once again calling for swimmers to try out for a team too small to compete.  

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Creighton’s first female athletes

It was perhaps the men’s lack of interest in swimming competition that finally opened the lane for female swimmers.

Though 1973 is typically considered to be the first year of intercollegiate competition for female athletes at Creighton — with the launch of women’s programs in basketball, volleyball and softball — the barrier was actually broken a decade earlier. In a swimming pool.

Headline about first female swimmers.

In 1963, four swimmers became the first women in Creighton’s history to represent the Bluejays in intercollegiate competition (in the annual Nebraska Colleges Swimming Meet). The student-athletes were Carol Powers Barrett, BSPHA’66; Sally Gerhardt Walker; Carolyn McGreevy Crystal, BA’66; and Mariana Waldmann Phipps.

The “CU mermaids” did well, finishing first in the 200-yard women’s medley relay and each placing independently in various events. Gerhardt Walker placed first in the 50-yard freestyle, despite having only been recruited to the team the night before.

Accompanying the women to the meet was the Rev. Bernard J. Hasbrouck, SJ, supervisor of athletics, a Creighton Jesuit who deserves his own chapter in this story.

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The Father of Synchronized Swimming

Fr. Hasbrouck speaks with a young swimmer.
Fr. Hasbrouck speaks with a young swimmer.

When he came to Creighton in 1954, Fr. Hasbrouck — an associate professor of math who served on the Creighton faculty for nearly 40 years — had no experience with synchronized swimming or even regular swimming. His sport was boxing.

But when he was appointed supervisor of athletics, he wanted to help give female students more opportunities to compete. In 1962, he helped freshman Judy (Jackson) Bauer, BA’66, organize an intercollegiate synchronized swimming team and served as the team’s moderator.

Hasbrouck also befriended a group of Creighton students who taught synchronized swimming lessons to several children ages 9 to 16 (all the daughters of faculty members). When the instructors moved on and no one was left to teach the girls, Hasbrouck stepped up.

Fr. Hasbrouck coaches the Naiads.
Fr. Hasbrouck coaches the Naiads.

To properly coach the team (called “The Creighton Naiads”), Hasbrouck read everything he could find on the subject of synchronized swimming. He attended matches, studied every rule book and before long set about writing a few of his own routines.

He was improving as a coach (and the Naiads as a team) when he suffered a near-fatal stroke that paralyzed his left side. Within two months, he was back coaching the Naiads, this time from a wheelchair.

“A lot of people had me dead for a while, but this synchronized swimming helped me get back,” Hasbrouck said shortly after his stroke. "What I wanted to do was come back and help these youngsters.”

Hasbrouck ended up becoming something of an expert in the field of synchronized swimming and one of the area’s best coaches. He took the Naiads to national competitions, became the chair of the Midwestern Amateur Athletic Association and even wrote a manual on the sport — Synchro-Swim Self-Taught.

“The essence of coaching,” Hasbrouck once said, “is not that the coach has the ability to do things but knows how to get things done.”

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The KFC pool

Following another decade of off-and-on again intercollegiate competition, the men’s and women’s swimming teams finally started to get something consistent going in the mid-‘70s. This was due in part to the nifty new pool in the newly built Kiewit Fitness Center. (Read all about the history of the KFC here.)

At 25 meters long, the KFC pool promised to be one of the new main attractions for campus recreation. It was — to the best of our knowledge — Nebraska’s first indoor swimming pool adjacent to a putting green.

The Old Gym’s pool was slated to be replaced with a theater. Here — in a grainy scan of a haunting image from the Nov. 5, 1976, Creightonian — is the final swimmer to use the Old Gym pool before it was drained.

The last swimmer of the Old Gym.

Hundreds of students flocked to the new pool when it opened in the fall of 1976. The pool also served a few purposes beyond swimming, such as carefully alternated diving sessions, scuba diving classes and crew team practice.

Creighton’s first intercollegiate crew team started in 1977, when the KFC added to its pool a tub outfitted with oars so the rowers could practice year-round. The team — moderated, by the way, by future Creighton President Rev. John P. Schlegel, SJ — competed in its first regatta later that year. A women’s rowing team formed a few years later.

Here are those first teams practicing in the KFC pool.

On a less competitive note, the pool was also popular for its freshman Welcome Week pool parties.

All the while, the Bluejay swim club used the pool for meets against colleges in the Midwest Swim League. By the end of the ’70s, interest in swimming was as high as it had ever been with students. So much so that Creighton decided to make it an NCAA Division I men’s and women’s sport.

The KFC pool

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Rise and Fall

Kim Gilroy, the sole member of Creighton's diving team.
Kim Gilroy, the sole member of Creighton's diving team.

That first Division I team included 23 swimmers, nine of them women. They showed a strong performance in the first few years, especially for a new program. By 1984, the swim team had 47 swimmers but, by the end of that season, only one diver — Kim Gilroy, BS’87, who had to serve as her own coach.

Creighton continued to invest more in the program, hiring the swim team’s first professionally trained coach (Jack Jackson) and adding partial scholarships to attract better swimmers. The teams continued to improve, breaking more than 30 school records in the first two meets of the 1988-1989 season and boasting the program’s first national champion.

The following season was the best in the program’s history, with five swimmers qualifying for the USS Senior Nationals, placing 15th overall and competing against several Olympic gold medalists and world-record holders.

The team’s appearance, the Creighton swimmers said, was just the thing the program needed to boost recruitment and become a major player in the NCAA. Creighton swimming was ready to take off.

One month later, Creighton canceled the program.

Creighton Athletics announced the decision to cut the swimming program on April 6, 1990, citing a lack of finances. The University, a press release read, “has to look to the future and consider overall strengths in the athletic program in relation to the budget.”

Swimming’s termination came, in part, because of the addition of men’s and women’s soccer as intercollegiate sports. Soccer, the University said, would have more fan support and produce more revenue than swimming.

The KFC pool itself, the athletics department said, was also a factor. The pool was a meter short of the regulation length, meaning that any meet held there would be unofficial. A swimmer couldn’t qualify for the NCAA championships with a time recorded in the KFC pool.

The swimmers were heartbroken. Then-Athletic Director Don Leahy called it a painful decision and apologized profusely to the affected athletes. A few of the swimmers transferred to other schools, though most stayed, as Creighton honored the students’ scholarships despite the program’s elimination.

It was a rough moment, no question. Yet some tragedies, however dire, can be leavened (somewhat and through the distance of time) by the absurd details found in the margins. Here is one of those details.

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The life and death of the KFC pool’s new diving board

January 1990: KFC pool gets new diving board

For years, Coach Jack Jackson had wanted a three-meter diving board in the KFC pool, calling it a must for a Division I swimming program. The issue was the depth and slope of the pool floor.

Swimmer swims in the KFC pool.

The American Diving Association deemed the pool’s 11-foot depth unsafe for diving. The slope, too, didn’t meet insurance regulations for diving.

To get the insurance company's approval of the diving board, Creighton agreed to a strict set of guidelines that limited the board's use to almost no one:

  • The diving board can only be used under the direct and constant supervision of the coaches.
  • It can only be used during diving practices.
  • It shall not be used during competition involving non-Creighton divers.
  • Only members of the diving team and coaches are permitted to use the board.
  • The board ladder shall have a cover installed that can be locked in place to make it impossible to ascend the ladder.

With those guidelines in place, the KFC purchased the $10,000 board.

March 24, 1990: Five men’s swimmers go to nationals.

April 6, 1990: Swim program terminated.

April 27, 1990: Creighton Athletics announces that the diving board will be removed.

Sept. 7, 1990: Creighton Athletics removes the board and places it in storage.

As the swim team had one diver when the program was cut, only one person had ever been allowed to use the board.

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The Final Lap

Even with no swim team, the KFC pool stayed open to students for another 18 years — for intramurals, recreation and the occasional game of water polo.

It finally closed (in Dec. 2008) due to a national recession and new federal guidelines that made repairs and upgrades prohibitively expensive. A letter to KFC members read:

The pool liner is leaking. The pool and spa drain covers must be replaced, and expensive updates are needed to modernize the pool, including pumps, filters, ventilation fans and temperature control. Due to the financial climate, the repair costs to fund this capital improvement are being deferred, and the pool and spa will close.

This was the first time campus would be without a pool in 93 years. To make up for it, Creighton offered (and still offers) students free swim passes to the downtown YMCA.

This summer, the old KFC pool, which has been used for storage since it was drained, will go from looking like this …

To this …

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Read more about the KFC

The history of the KFC, Creighton’s most active spot on campus for nearly half a century.

Do you have good stories about the KFC or the KFC pool? Share them with