Downtown Lawrence Outdoor Aquatics Center
| 2015 Q2 | story by KATHERINE DIAZ    | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |

Lawrence Outdoor Aquatics Center has a variety of swimming lessons for all ages.

Take a splash back to the summer of 1969. While the country was jammin’ out to “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, Lawrence was completing the construction of its outdoor pool specifically – and conveniently – located downtown on Vermont Street.
“Swimming pools, traditionally when they were built back in the 50s and 60s, were built in the commercial hub, the downtown area, at a park or a place of gathering,” said Jimmy Gibbs, Recreation Operations Manager for the Lawrence Parks and Recreation.

Swimming is a popular activity among adults and children during the summer, and by the time children go back to school, most would have visited a swimming pool or engaged in a water-related activity. However, just as the water can be fun, it can also be very dangerous. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in its most recent Drowning in Kansas: Injury Prevention and Disability Program, for children 14 years old and younger, drowning was the third leading cause of injury death in 2012. In Lawrence, however, Gibbs and his team ensure everyone attending public waters is safe. On the other hand, to help individuals enjoy their time at the pool, various swimming lessons are provided at all ages.

“Lawrence is a very unique community in that we have folks that come from all over the globe that go to school here and not everybody has grown up around water,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs has seen many adults, who are international students, that have never swam before. Whether it’s not culturally acceptable or their community doesn’t have the means to provide a source for recreational swimming, these individuals have no experience about having fun or being safe in the water.

“We had to create or craft several years ago how to start helping and teaching those adult classes in being comfortable and being safe around the water,” Gibbs said.

It’s also essential for young children learning how to swim, to also learn and understand the importance of respecting the water, as Gibbs says.

“It’s fun but it can also be very dangerous,” he said. “It’s important for us providing physical education and health and wellness that that safety aspect is very important and that’s why in our swimming lessons that we have, they’re not just learning the strokes but they’re also learning how to keep themselves safe.”

Another measure taken to ensure the safety of all visitors are those standing watch over the Lawrence pools – its well-trained lifeguards supervised by Lori Madaus, Lawrence Aquatics Supervisor. Madaus is the one responsible for overseeing the indoor and outdoor pool, the South Park Wading Pool and staffs the Carl Knox Natatorium during school year.

“The responsibility you have for people’s lives – it’s a huge responsibility,” Madaus said. “People trust their children to you, they trust you to watch over and guard them while they’re swimming and the children look up to them.”

The concept of safeguarding the lives of others was greatly upheld by Dr. James Naismith who understood the significance of lifeguard responsibility, as well as the importance of knowing how to swim, as Gibbs explains while taking a deeper look into Lawrence’s pools from the past.

“Dr. Naismith from the University of Kansas – the inventor of basketball – he had a requirement that his athletes had to know how to swim, and that was a big challenge for his African American athletes on his teams,” Gibbs said. “There were literally no integrated swimming pools at the time.”

At that time there were black-only and white-only swimming pools in Lawrence, Gibbs further explained. Though there was a swimming pool, a YMCA-type that used to be downtown in the 1940s and 1950s where Dr. Naismith would take his African American athletes and they would be able to swim there. However, during these times of segregation across the country, the simple idea of swimming was a challenge.

“Dr. Naismith took one of his African American athletes who was a lifeguard in Kansas City to the swimming pool, and this was most likely on a Friday and after the kid gets out the custodial staff starts to drain the pool,” Gibbs said, the reason being was indirectly implied. “So then Dr. Naismith brought in members of the football team to stand guard at these swimming pools so that his African American athletes could swim and use the pool without being harassed.”


Drowning was the third leading cause of injury death in 2012 for children 14 years old and younger in Kansas.

The construction of the downtown outdoor pool in 1969 marked a significant time in Lawrence history as it opened to become the first integrated pool in the community. There had been white-only pools in the area, with not one black-only pool, according to Gibbs. The exception was the pool where Dr. Naismith took his African American athletes. The true lesson, however, to take away from the simple ability of knowing how to swim is what it teaches individuals. Aside from being safe and respecting the water, what matters are the life-long qualities swimming teaches students.

“Swimming is a lifelong skill. It doesn’t matter how young you are or how old you are it’s a skill teaches you responsibility, it teaches you punctuality and job skills that you can take throughout your whole life,” Madaus said. “ It doesn’t matter what career you choose, swimming teaches you the basic fundamentals of job skills.”

One can never be too young or too old to learn and develop these skills. Madaus and Gibbs have seen a wide-range of age groups learning the basics of swimming through the swimming lessons offered by the Lawrence pools. Many start as young as six months old, and there are occasional 80 year-olds as Madaus has witnessed.

“First-time grandparents – maybe they never learned how to swim – but their grandkids do or they’ve been invited to somebody’s lake house or out on a boat and they’re terrified,” Gibbs said. “So it’s a process of you’re not going to teach them to swim 50 meters, but we are going to help you get comfortable weighing up to your knees or knowing what to do if your grandkids are in trouble.”

Whether people are going by the pool for lessons or to have fun in the sun and water, one thing for sure is the Outdoor Aquatics Center is part of the enjoyable downtown experience.

“We’ve always been in that downtown area, and so we’re part of the experience of coming downtown. You find a place to park, you go to the library, you go to eat, maybe do some shopping, you go to the swimming pool and so all of those things are right there,” Gibbs said. “You’re not having to get in your car and go shopping or go someplace else to eat. I think we’re an important part and will continue to be an important part of the community.”

From the summer of 1969 onward, the Lawrence outdoor pool remains as a representation of cultural change, a place of learning and developing life skills and, of course, a place to have fun – safely – with family and friends.

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