'Largest swim meet ever': How an Olympic swimming pool was built inside Lucas Oil Stadium

INDIANAPOLIS -- The emerald green turf is now lost under water, 2 million gallons of water that were pumped in from a hydrant on South Capitol Avenue. The pool deck covers more than an acre and has invaded 12 rows of Indianapolis Colts blue seats, sending them to a storage space somewhere in the 1.8 million-square-foot stadium.

In the middle of the massive deck, a serene 8.2-foot deep pool is a still crystal blue just waiting for more than 1,000 Olympic swimming hopefuls to dive in and go for the biggest dreams of their lives -- filling the 52 open spots for Paris this summer for the 2024 Olympic games.

As Tim Hinchey III, president of USA Swimming, stood inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Wednesday morning, he uttered three words, which paraphrased what most people were thinking. "This is remarkable."

Remarkable that Indianapolis pulled off this wild, crazy dream to make the U.S. Olympic swim trials more welcoming and visible than ever -- by building the Olympic swimming pool inside an NFL stadium for the first time.

Everyone in Indianapolis believed it could happen, all those officials and city leaders and sports event gurus who have been here before, putting on massive competitions in grandiose fashion in a city known for knocking it out of the park when it comes to hosting major events.

There was the entire March Madness held in a bubble in 2021. A Super Bowl in 2012. The NBA All-Star game in February. There have been countless Final Fours and Big Ten championships, 108 Indianapolis 500s and seven Olympic swimming trials, including one 100 years ago at Broad Ripple Pool.

But pulling off the 2024 Olympic Swimming Trials by constructing a pool inside an NFL stadium, putting the event on the biggest stage of its existence? Could Indy really pull that off?

"Take this in for a second. Look what's behind me. And imagine what this will be like," Patrick Talty, president of Indiana Sports Corp., said as he stood in front of the pool Wednesday. "Crowds will be going crazy, there will be swimmers in the pool. Who would have thought that there would be a pool built inside of a football stadium? Not many people did, but this community did. And this community has delivered."

Sarah Myer remembers how it all began.

'Trucking in a pool in pieces'

Myer was helping the city navigate what some didn't believe could happen -- holding an entire NCAA tournament in one city in a bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic. Myer was rewarded for that in her role at Indiana Sports Corp. and offered to be a lead on the bid to host the U.S. Swimming Trials in Indy in 2024.

It was a strange, almost eerie feeling, said Myer, chief of staff and strategy, to be sitting in masks, social distancing while planning the biggest trials in USA Swimming's history. "'Will we even be doing this in 2024?'" she remembers thinking. "Because no one knew, you know; it was so scary."

But it was also amazing to look ahead to the possibility that one day things would be back to normal.

"Dreaming about what an event could look like or be while you're sitting in masks and not knowing what the event business could look like, it really brought a huge sense of hope," Myer said, "because it was the possibility of being able to do something big again for Indianapolis."

To make the bid to USA Swimming, Indy leaders summoned Olympic medalist Lilly King, an Evansville native, to downtown Indy to film a video. Inside empty buildings and on nearly empty streets, King showed the connectivity of the city and the logistics of hosting the trials.

The city made it clear that if USA Swimming wanted to take its trials to a new level, Indy was the place to do it. It had an impressive resume and a stadium that would seat 30,000 spectators if needed.

When the city won the bid in 2022, the reality of the pool -- the main attraction -- began to set it. It wasn't necessarily a novel feat to build a pool in a sports arena, said Scott Davison, CEO of OneAmerica Financial and co-chair for the trials. It has been done before, just not in an NFL stadium.

"This is how large, international meets work these days; they basically truck in a pool in pieces," he said. "Think of like a big Lego set for a pool."

Workers spent three weeks constructing the two pools. The turf had to come up, goal posts were stored away, plywood was put down and the pool walls were built section by section. Instead of pouring concrete to create the bottom, a thick liner of Neoprene, a synthetic rubber was laid.

And then came the star of the entire show. All the H₂O.

Water will go back to the river

A couple of weeks ago, a team of Citizens Energy Group employees gathered around a fire hydrant located just outside of Lucas Oil on Capitol Avenue and piped 1 million gallons of central Indiana water inside the stadium and into the competition pool.

A few days later, the team sent another 1 million gallons into the warmup pool.

"And at the completion of this event, our employees will help ensure that this water is removed from the system facility and safely released back into the White River," Jeff Willman, vice president of water operations for Citizens Energy Group said Wednesday. "That's what we do every day in terms of our wastewater treatment operations, in terms of serving the region."

To build the pool deck up 10 feet to reach the top of the water, those 12 rows of seats had to be removed from the stadium and a massive black curtain was hung to divide the 50-meter competition pool from the 25-meter warmup pool, the largest in trial history.

Davison was in awe as he looked around Wednesday. He reminisced about the day six years ago, talking to Hinchey over a glass of red wine.

"We were dreaming about a future," he said, "that would lift the sport of swimming to an entirely new level that we'd never seen before."

The trials, which run June 15-23, are expected to have an economic impact of more than $100 million and draw more than 250,000 fans. Some are dubbing the event "the largest swim meet ever."

"Today we are making history," an almost giddy Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett said as he stood in front of the pool Wednesday morning talking to media and key stakeholders, in the same place the Colts play their home games.

"I think I speak for everyone in Indianapolis when I say we are thrilled to be having such a renowned event here ... and the reason for this is no secret," he said. "All great racers come to Indianapolis, Olympic swimmers and Indy 500 drivers alike."

Myer is excited not only for the fans but for the athletes, who she believes may make their own history because of the historic venue they are competing in.

"The experience for these athletes is going to be unlike anything that they've ever done," she said. "I was talking to USA Swimming officials yesterday and they said, 'I think world records will be broken just because the adrenaline that they will have walking on that stage, seeing that they're in an NFL stadium, something that they've never done before is going to push them to greatness.'"

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: How an Olympic swimming pool was built inside Lucas Oil Stadium