Alumni Reminisce on Early Days of Baylor Swimming
Baylor alums pose for a photo where their team photo was taken when they swam at Baylor. Seated are Steve Sawrie '59Max Brener '59Greg Wright '64 and standing are Joe Robbins '60 and Jim Hellmann '69.

(Note: The following is an excerpt from an original story written by John Shearer '78 that appeared in Chattanoogan.com).

Prior to Christmas and the other festive winter holidays, Baylor School held an alumni holiday gathering for the first time at the new Common House at 1517 Mitchell Ave. near Main Street.

But for a small number of people, the event at the new social and dining club was a trip back to see an important part of their youthful past. For a brief period from the 1957-58 school year until Baylor’s first on-campus indoor pool opened in late 1963, this building that was formerly the Industrial YMCA was where the Baylor swim team practiced and competed.

“I have not been in here since then until this event,” said Greg Wright '64 as he toured the room where the pool sits. “I only swam in it for three or four months before the new pool opened at Baylor.  This was a lot smaller. The new pool was a better facility and better structure, but this worked well for us.”

Wright, a standout swimmer and three-sport athlete at Baylor, who went off to the University of Minnesota in his home state after one year, was joined for a special tour before the regular alumni gathering by several other swimmers who trained there. They included Max Brener ’59, Steven Sawrie ’59, Joe Robbins ’60 and Jim Hellman ’69, who was a seventh grader the last year Baylor swam there.

Former Baylor swimmers and coaches at the event: (seated) Steve Sawrie '59, Max Brener '59, Greg Wright '64; (standing) Jim Stover, Matt Lewis '74, Erin Williams, Miller Williams '06, Jennifer Davenport Elam '99, John Davenport '69, Joe Robbins '60, and Jim Hellman '69

The idea for the event had been initiated by Jim Frierson ’67, who had joined the Common House and began thinking about the history of Baylor swimming there, particularly after he noticed the familiar tiles from old yearbook photos of the team. “This was the birth of the Baylor swim team right here,” he told a gathering in the former gymnasium before the building tour.

The Mediterranean-style Industrial YMCA, which was designed by Chattanooga architect Clarence Jones, was built in 1929 and served as a Y from 1930 to 1989. Although it was vacant for a period, it was later purchased, stabilized and maintained by Jack Kruesi '64, another former swimmer, until a suitable use could be found for the now-blossoming Southside area. Common House is a Charlottesville, Va.- based company that has been turning a variety of properties in different cities into social clubs that are known for their amenities and eclectic membership.

The old Industrial YMCA building has been greatly restored to keep the main architectural features, although parts of it have been slightly remodeled and reconfigured for use as a club. The old swimming pool on the lower level was covered but was not filled in and now makes great storage, officials say. Over the new flooring, an exercise room is on one end, and restrooms/dressing rooms are on the other side across a hallway that has been created.

The idea for using the building back in the 1950s had come from the late Stan Lewis, who served as Baylor’s first swim coach.  “It was like a big bathtub,” joked Matt Lewis '74, who also attended the alumni gathering and remembered going with his father to the pool for practice and meets as a small child. “It was very hot in there. Very humid. Almost a cloud. I just remember how narrow it was, even for a little boy. The lanes were really narrow, and guys would be locking arms. And the waves that would be generated. You would come up for a breath of air and get a mouth full of water. It was a hard place to swim. And diving was a real challenge. It really wasn’t deep enough.”

Vintage yearbook photos

Because of these limitations in this pool likely designed more for casual recreation, and due to the growing popularity of Baylor’s swim program, the school decided to build a pool onto the newer gymnasium and opened in late 1963, and a few months later was officially called the Calvin Smith Jr. Natatorium in memory of Smith, a 1958 Baylor alumnus, who had died in a military plane crash at sea on Dec. 31, 1963.  It served until the current Baylor Natatorium was built in 2006, and the older pool became part of the Luke Worsham Wrestling Arena. Now Baylor, McCallie and GPS all have their own upscale swim facilities, and each regularly competes for a state title.

And with the recent holiday event, a few alums who got the program started had a chance to reminisce at the old Industrial YMCA building about the humbler early days. Lewis thinks his late father would have gotten a kick out of the gathering. “He loved to talk romantically about the old Industrial Y,” he said. “My dad looked back affectionately and romantically on this pool.”

Matt Lewis '74, Greg Wright '64, Steve Sawrie '59, and Max Brener '59 at a recent Baylor swim meet at the Baylor Aquatic Center.

 


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