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Mary Wayte Pool key to school plans

The interior of Mary Wayte Pool, looking down from the upstairs viewing area. The pool may not have many years left if MISD reclaims its North Mercer property.  - File photo
The interior of Mary Wayte Pool, looking down from the upstairs viewing area. The pool may not have many years left if MISD reclaims its North Mercer property.
— image credit: File photo

Mary Wayte Pool has been an integral part of Mercer Island High School athletics for generations. High school swimmers and divers have been practicing and competing at the Olympic-sized pool since it opened in 1969. Mary Wayte Pool, named after the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the women’s 200m freestyle who hailed from Mercer Island, is also open to the community, with scores of swimmers trickling through every day. So what happens if this aging facility is shut down? It is a question that has suddenly come to the Island’s attention.

Last month, the school district announced the beginning stages of its “21st Century Facilities Plan.” Faced with a forthcoming surge in student enrollment and a deteriorating Islander Middle School building, the district intends to reclaim its North Mercer campus for classroom facilities. Tentative plans are to move Islander Middle School to the site, which includes the soon-to-be PEAK building, current Children’s Institute and its annexed preschools, Youth Theatre Northwest and the Mary Wayte Pool.

MISD Superintendent Gary Plano has raised the possibility of Mercer Island opening a full aquatic center in place of Mary Wayte, which lacks a diving tank, among other amenities.

“We could potentially find a larger piece of land for an aquatic center. We will have to talk to the city about this,” the superintendent told Islanders at a May 1 public meeting on the subject.

Plano has also suggested that MIHS athletes could use existing club pools on the Island or a new pool set to be built at the Stroum Jewish Community Center. All of these proposals, however, are merely ideas.

Before school district administrators make any decisions, they must engage the public in the process. As voters, Islanders’ opinions are key.

Although it sits on district property, Mary Wayte Pool has been operated by Northwest Center, a nonprofit that supports the disabled, since 2003. The city of Mercer Island agreed to help Northwest Center financially when it took over operation of the pool. Both parties signed a four-year agreement in which the city would provide $100,000 each year “by either budget allocation, voter-approved financing or private sources.” The contract has since been extended to the end of 2010.

As for its users, both the community and Mercer Island High School have a stake in Mary Wayte Pool. The latter, especially.

According to Athletics Director Craig Olson, MIHS athletes use the pool five days a week from the end of August through June.

“Starting the third Monday of August and going through the first weekend of November, students are practicing in the pool Monday through Friday, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Then there are six to seven home meets per season, fall and winter,” Olson said, adding that other schools are not nearly as lucky. “Most districts don’t have their own pools. And with these community pool closures, they’re all scrambling. Practicing times have been cut and teams have to share pools.”

Indeed, Mercer Island is one of the only Eastside schools that has a pool next to campus.

Bellevue, Interlake and Sammamish high schools’ swim and dive teams use the Bellevue Aquatic Center for practice. According Mike Koenig, aquatics manager for the city of Bellevue, the teams must find another pool for hosting home meets.

Issaquah High School, with a girls swim team of 60 and a boys swim team of slightly less, also has to share a community pool with other teams.

“We practice at [the Julius Boehm] Pool in Issaquah. We share that with Liberty High School and Skyline,” said Issaquah High School Athletic Secretary Laura Couty, adding that the situation can become quite stressful. “It gets really crazy. We’re only allowed so many lanes and strict practice times. But we don’t have any other choice.”

If the Mercer Island School District decides to repurpose Mary Wayte as classroom facilities, the MIHS swim and dive team will most likely also be constrained in its choice of pools.

Olson said that the biggest benefit of Mary Wayte is that it is so close to the high school.

“[Losing Mary Wayte] is a concern only from the standpoint that it’s worked well for us because it’s on our campus. Could it be upgraded? Yes. Could it be larger with a full dive tank? Yes. But proximity-wise, it’s great for us,” the athletics director said.

Formal discussions over the future of Mary Wayte Pool have yet to commence. So far, the district has only considered its options. Plano has not yet spoken with the directors of Mercer Island’s club pools. Indeed, the 21st Century Facilities Plan is still in its infancy, but Mary Wayte’s swimmers are starting to listen.

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