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Bidding the iconic University of Iowa Field House pool a fond farewell


The University of Iowa Field House pool. Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

An iconic landmark built in 1927 is set to disappear when the swimming pool in the University of Iowa Field House will be updated and converted to a fitness center, according to a budget approved in June by the Iowa Board of Regents Property and Facilities Committee. Projected to run at least $10 million, the update will be funded by gifts and earnings to recreational services and income on university investments.

When people think of competitive swimming, they probably picture Florida or California, where top athletes train outdoors year-round, or Colorado, where U.S. Olympians train. But Iowa City was the birthplace of one of the four strokes swum not only at the Olympics and international swim competitions, but also at every age group, high school and college meet.

Freestyle (or front crawl), breaststroke and back crawl have been around for centuries if not longer. But the last stroke to be added to the Olympics (in 1956), the butterfly, has origins in flyover country, specifically Iowa City.

Butterfly is the most taxing of the four strokes and the most unforgiving for improper form. How did it come to be?

Iowa Swim Coach David Armbruster in the 1940s. — photo from the Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs in the University of Iowa Library Special Collections

Iowa Coach David Armbruster and Hawkeye swimmer Jack Seig can be given most of the credit for the refinement of the ‘fly, but the truth is that the creation of the butterfly stroke traces back to a number of swimmers and places.

This complex stroke arguably started with the dolphin kick, with Canadian George Corsan, Sr. as a key influence. Corsan was a pool designer and swim instructor who showed the fishtail dolphin kick to Armbruster as early as 1911.

Much of the arm stroke development probably happened simultaneously, but the International Swimming Hall of Fame credits Australian swimmer Sydney Cavill as the official developer of the butterfly pull. Other developers of the butterfly arm pull include Armbruster, German swimmer Erich Rademacher and American swimmer Henry Myers.

Swim meet in the University of Iowa Field House pool in the 1920s. — photo from the Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs in the University of Iowa Library Special Collections

Armbruster and Sieg, with Japanese swimmer Jiro Nagasawa, are named as the first to put the arm pull and dolphin kick together successfully. Armbruster, Iowa’s swim coach from 1917-1958, worked on a breastroke variation for several years with his swimmers, including Sieg.

For a time, the overwater arm recovery stroke of the butterfly was allowed as a variant of the breaststroke, until butterfly became an official stroke. But while the butterfly pull was allowed for breastrokers, the powerful dolphin kick was not allowed for many years.

By 1952, the butterfly was officially recognized for international competitions and then made its Olympic debut in 1956 in Melbourne.

The Dolphin Show

The Homecoming queen and court on a float during the Dolphin Show in the 1950s. — photo from the Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs in the University of Iowa Library Special Collections

At Iowa, the Field House pool became the site of a Homecoming event called the Dolphin Show, an annual spectacle which had started as a water show staged on a barge in the Iowa River.

The Dolphin Show featured members of the Iowa swim and gymnastics teams who staged skits and stunts to large crowds. High dive stunts included pushing a student dressed as a baby in a carriage off the nine-meter board.

Iowa swimmer Jock Mahoney (who also played football and basketball for the Hawkeyes) wowed the crowd when he appeared through a trap door in the ceiling and launched himself over four stories into the pool below. Mahoney was later a Hollywood stuntman who appeared in many films, including the 1978 film The End with Sally Fields.

Another Dolphin Show stunt was a daring feat first performed by Seig in 1935, but repeated by various Iowa swimmers through the years. With arms and legs tied together, Seig used the dolphin kick to fishtail across the entire length of the 50-yard pool underwater, holding his breath the entire time.

Swimmers walk across a bridge in the University of Iowa Field House pool during the Dolphin Show in the 1920s. — photo from the Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs in the University of Iowa Library Special Collections

When it opened in 1927, the Iowa Field House hosted the fourth unofficial NCAA Championship swim competition. At the time, the Field House pool was considered the largest indoor competition swimming pool in the world.

The Field House pool replacement, the competition pool at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center (CWRC), which opened in 2010, held the 2015 NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships when the Iowa men’s team finished 37th.

In 2021, the CWRC will host the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships again.

The University of Iowa Field House pool. Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

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