Stephanie Belke was 11 when she walked into the Flickinger Athletic Center pool for the first time. The Amherst native was new to the sport of swimming, unsure of her potential. Belke gazed upon the dazzling new facility with a child's sense of wonder, a realization that anything might be possible in this sport.
"I wasn't very good then," said Belke, a St. Bonaventure senior. "So I was in awe when I walked in there. It was just amazing to watch. Of course, I didn't make it to the finals. I remember going back to watch the fast swimmers and thinking, 'I really want to be like them some day.' "
Belke got her wish. She became a top competitive swimmer at Sweet Home High. This weekend, she concluded a four-year career as a top sprinter on Bona's women's team, which finished second to Richmond in the Atlantic 10 swimming and diving championships held in downtown Buffalo at Erie Community College's Flickinger Center.
It would have been nice to win the title for once, but Belke couldn't complain. She's had a nice career at Bona, where she's an honor student and aspiring journalist. And for four straight years, she's had the pleasure of competing in her conference tournament in her hometown, in the pool where she has competed countless times over the past decade.
"I lucked out," Belke said. "A lot of swimmers live in areas where they don't have something like that growing up. Maybe I took it for granted a little bit."
She's not alone. It's easy to take the Flickinger Center for granted, to forget we have an amateur sports treasure sitting in our back yard, an internationally recognized swimming facility that attracts thousands of visitors to our beleaguered city every year and generates an estimated $6.5 million a year in revenue.
On a winter weekend, it's impossible to walk around downtown without running into a group of swimmers. If it seems there's an event every week, it's not far from the truth. The ECC pool, which was built for the 1993 World University Games, hosts about 16 major events a year. There's an event about once every four days out of the year.
In the first week of the month, the boys all-Catholic meet was at ECC. A week later, it was the all-High city meet. Then the SUNYACs. This week, the A-10. In two weeks, the boys states will be there. The girls sectionals and states are held there. Next year, ECC will host the national junior college championships and Division II championships.
The STAR Swimming club, which has been in a partnership with ECC since 2004, brings in another seven or eight national competitions, which attract some 40,000 annual visitors and generate more than half of that $6.5 million estimated revenue.
"We really are fortunate," said Sarah Takas, the aquatics coordinator for ECC/STAR. "I know people give the World University Games a negative rap, but it's still contributing to our economy. It's been great since we joined the [ECC/STAR] partnership."
Takas, a Hamburg native who swam at Fordham in the early 1990s, said the ECC pool's main distinction is its regulation (50-meter) pool and warm-up (25-meter) pool. For larger events, the main pool can be split into two 25-yard courses to accommodate the larger numbers of swimmers.
In a struggling local economy, of course, it can be hard to make ends meet. Takas said she's always on the lookout for local sponsors. The pool is a civic gem, but after 12 years it could use a little polishing -- such as new diving boards and starting blocks, and an upgraded timing system.
During fractious county budget talks last year, ECC trustees actually suggested closing the Flickinger Center. It was windy political rhetoric, but it's a scary notion for the local swim community. It would be a crushing blow for St. Bonaventure, which has hosted the A-10 championships 11 years in a row.
"It definitely helps recruiting," said Lance Brennan, the Bona women's coach. "Most of the swimmers we recruit are somewhat regional, and a lot of them have been to national competitions at this facility. So when recruits hear our conference tournament is at ECC, they get excited because most of them have swum here before and done well.
"It helps budgetarily, too, for the simple fact that we're only 90 miles away."
Brennan concedes that Bona has a home-pool advantage. It's convenient for his athletes' families and friends to get to Buffalo for the conference meet. He said other coaches might envy him, but no one is eager to function as host school.
"Other coaches like the smooth way it runs," Brennan said. "They know if they hosted this meet, they'd have to be more of a meet manager than team coach, and nobody wants that."
Barb Questa, senior associate athletics director at Bona, said hosting the A-10 championships has become a fond tradition at the school. Bona is scheduled to host in 2007 and has put in a bid for 2008. Basketball is the university's high-profile program, the one that generates the most publicity and income. But once in a while, it's nice for one of the lesser sports to get its time in the spotlight.
The men's and women's programs are consistently competitive. The women can't match Richmond, whose swim program is fully funded. The men edged UMass on Saturday's final day of competition for the title.
"In wintertime, basketball is a natural attraction," Questa said. "But there's an underlying current of, 'The swim championships are coming.' Come January, my mind is on swimming. We're in the hunt for the championship every year. It makes it a lot easier to host it, I will tell you that. It is a long meet, a long week. You're tired every night, but it's a happy tired. It really is."