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Early forecasts were rosy. In 1966, the Miami Herald wrote: "When the shrine is complete... a fresh era of affinity between Fort Lauderdale and aquatic sports will begin." Dawson wrote in Fort LauderdaleMagazine in 1966 that the hall "will be no ordinary museum or Hall of Fame mausoleum. It will be a science fair of swimming designed to appeal to everybody...." The museum opened in 1968, the same year that the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), the sport's worldwide governing body, approved it to become an international institution.
Around its 20th anniversary in 1985, a Sun-Sentinel story remarked on the hall's "bizarre mixture of lonely sports trivia and gaudy Hollywood sensationalism." A Miami Herald story that year called it "the world's wackiest sports hall of fame," owing largely to Dawson's panache. (The swim hall director did have to throttle back at times. He censored a mural by caricaturist Linzee Prescott that featured bare-chested mermaids and that accomplished swimmer Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick.) "I liked it better when we were building something," Dawson told the Herald. "From here on out, we have a future that's not as flamboyant and exciting."
He was half right. Freas maintains the Hall of Fame's mission involves more than housing trophies, and to increase its influence and income, in the mid-'90s he dabbled with the notion of opening branches overseas. Nagoya, Japan, got its hall off the ground, while a proposed museum and swimming complex in Ireland went down the tubes.
The Fort Lauderdale museum now resides in two buildings that flank the aquatic complex. The rear structure contains, among other things, the world's largest swimming trophy and the Henning Library, one of the best collections of aquatic books, periodicals, and memorabilia anywhere. There are also various medals from past Olympic games, including one that appears to be as old as Homer. "This is a copy," Freas says. "We have an original Greek Olympic medal. People don't understand: We have the finest Olympic medal collection in the world."
Problem is, only bits of the hall's holdings are on display. The building at the hall's entrance houses a gift shop and, under vaulted ceilings upstairs, a modest few displays. The exhibits on swimmers in various countries are mostly sun-faded maps and photographs mounted on wire lattices on the walls. The paint on the wall behind Yugoslavia is peeling; China consists of two photographs, one labeled. Mark Spitz's grinning wax figure -- the one that he apparently wants removed -- is missing a couple of fingertips.
Some artifacts resonate, such as Louganis' gold medal scorecard from the 1984 Olympics, and a smattering of 100-year-old Olympic medals bedecked with frayed ribbons. But the "science fair of swimming" too much resembles a science fair of middle school. Hang a left at the top of the stairs, it gets even lamer. The exhibit space evaporates after a dozen steps, because the Hall of Fame is renting about a third of the floor to a neighboring scuba diving company.
The state of the exhibits is a common gripe in the honorees' resignation letters. "It's in shambles," diving coach Ron O'Brien says.
The not-for-profit Hall of Fame doesn't own the land beneath it. Rather, it must share the aquatic complex with the city's swim team, dive team, and beach patrol. The pools there -- two 50 meters in length, a dive well 18 feet deep, and one for little kids -- are owned and operated by Fort Lauderdale's Parks and Recreation Department. The ISHOF, like all halls of fame, is genetically designed to lose money. Thus, to keep its head above water, Fort Lauderdale's swim hall must remain popular, important, and famous despite its halfhearted displays. It also needs, ideally, government largesse.
Stu Marvin, who runs the city's aquatics programs, has a great view of the facilities from his second-story poolside office. A tall, lanky man with the build of a former swimmer, Marvin contends that the city's tight relationship with the private institution has fueled confusion.
"The responsibilities were, the city ran the pool and the Hall of Fame ran the Hall of Fame," says Marvin, gesticulating with long arms. "[Then] everybody hung their name all over everything. It's this mishmash of swim team, dive team, city, Hall of Fame. So everybody referred to it as the Hall of Fame. And therein lies some of the problem."
The swim hall and the city used to cooperate. Between 1990 and 1992, the hall helped to successfully lobby the state for two two-million-dollar grants for improvements to the pools and the museum. In 1991, the city granted the Hall of Fame rights to collect all the parking fees at the shared lot (parking there costs a buck an hour now, a bounty totaling about $70,000 a year).
Both the hall and Fort Lauderdale would like a new pool. The 40-year-old facility doesn't conform to the modern depth requirement of seven feet for Olympic-caliber competitions. The pool did host the 2002 nationals, but only because USA Swimming granted an exception. "The pool at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, people love to come there," said Don Hart, rules and regulations chairman for the national group.
So on May 1, 2001, the hall bid on a parcel of land to the west across the Las Olas Boulevard causeway. The plan was to pay for a spanking-new museum and aquatics complex by building condos on the current site, less than a mile away. Freas sought Nelson's aid in pitching the idea to the city. Nelson assented and brought about 100 members of the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team, in their red uniforms, to the commission meeting in a show of support for new facilities. When the commissioners voted 3-2 against the plan, Nelson says, Freas was apoplectic.