Swimming blooms in desert at Tucson club

When the US swimming community converges on Omaha, Neb., later this month for the Olympic trials, no program will be better represented than Tucson Ford Aquatics.

It might seem odd that a swim club based in Tucson, a desert city about two hours from the nation’s sixth-largest metropolis, will send the most representatives to the trials with hopes of earning a spot in London. But through generous sponsorship and an increasingly elite group of talent, Tucson Ford Aquatics has grown into a powerhouse and today sits at the forefront of swimming in the US.

"It’s got a long history, and it just keeps getting better and better," University of Arizona and Tucson Ford coach Eric Hansen said. "The level of talent in this pool is mind-boggling. The average athlete in our pool right now is an All-American. The number of world-record holders, past world-record holders and Olympic medalists we have — it’s not out of the ordinary to be shooting for that or to expect that."

The proof is in the numbers. Tucson Ford has won two straight team national championships. At the trials — which will be held from June 25 to July 2 — 20 postgraduate swimmers and more than 30 UA swimmers will attempt to qualify. Of the swimmers who train with Tucson Ford at Hillenbrand Aquatic Center on the Arizona campus, seven have made Olympic appearances and seven hold American records. The group cumulatively owns 64 NCAA national championships and 13 Olympic medals, including five gold.

So how exactly did Tucson Ford blossom into a swimming Mecca? There were a number of factors, really, and Frank Busch watched it all happen.

Busch, currently the national team director for USA Swimming, arrived to coach at UA in 1989, when Tucson Ford was still called Hillenbrand Aquatics. Busch led Hillenbrand to a national championship in 1998, but things really started to turn when Tucson Ford got involved in 2000. With Jim Click of Tucson Ford Dealers and Michael Kasser, president of real estate investment firm Holualoa Companies, donating heavily, the program’s potential grew exponentially.

"After I got there, the sponsorship amounts and sponsorship enthusiasm changed significantly," Busch said. "That certainly was a huge contributor. The Ford money and enthusiasm certainly shot us to a new level."

As much as plentiful funding has helped Tucson Ford grow, so too have the athletes competing there. And that started with the increasing strength of UA’s program.

"As our college program got better, obviously the athletes that were part of the college program became more (significant) on the international level," Busch said. "We started to put people on Olympic teams, world championship teams and Pan-American Games teams."

Many of those swimmers chose to make Tucson their training home after graduation. And once a strong base was in place, Tucson became a magnet for elite swimmers.

"I swam two years in college here and continued swimming here as a professional," two-time gold medalist Amanda Beard said. "Then, I was the only professional athlete training here. From that until now, we have something like 25 professional athletes training here. It’s blossomed.

"We have so many world-class athletes here. You want to be around your equals, people that push you on a daily basis and have the same goals as you."

Beard is perhaps the most accomplished of the athletes training with Tucson Ford, having appeared in four Olympics and collected seven total medals, two of them gold. She’s not alone though, as fellow American medalists Matt Grevers and Christine Magnuson call Tucson home despite having competed collegiately at Northwestern and Tennessee, respectively.

There’s also Darian Townsend, a South African who went to Arizona and won gold at the Athens Olympics in 2004. And when gold medalist Ed Moses decided to make a comeback for the 2012 Olympics, he chose Tucson.

"We really built up the reputation of swimming in the Tucson community," Busch said. "It became a destination."

Added Hansen: "If you stop and think about the number of medals and some of the accolades some of these athletes have, there aren’t too many places on the planet you’ll find that much talent or that many accomplishments."

Hansen took over at UA when Busch left last year for the position with USA Swimming. Hansen swam for Hillenbrand Aquatics under Busch and served under him as an assistant coach from 1996-99. Seeing what the program has become, Hansen sometimes simply looks around in amazement.

"I’m not amazed by any one person," Hansen said. "I see amazing things every day because we do have so much talent, but individually, we have enough Olympians here where if you’re an Olympian, you’re no better or worse than anybody else. You’re just part of what we do."

With the swimmers UA is attracting and developing, along with the growing crop of postgraduate swimmers, Hansen and Busch see a bright future for Tucson Ford.

The facility’s reputation certainly stands to benefit from the Trials in Omaha, where it could add to its Olympic contingent. Five international athletes from Tucson Ford have already qualified.

"The international kids have got it done, and now it’s the US kids’ turn," Hansen said. "It’s an exciting time for us."