The Death of a Legend

The Death of a Legend

(written 2018)


In 10 years the Iowa City Field House pool would have celebrated its 100th birthday, but a recent decision will see the historic pool renovated and replaced by exercise equipment. And that’s ok, it is time to move on to bigger and better things, and almost a 100 years ago the Field House pool was the biggest and best, literally. That’s why we are going to talk about it for a minute.

Never heard of the Iowa City Field House Pool? She is history and character wrapped into one and this pool has left its mark on all swimmers. Built in 1927, it was the largest pool in the world, stretching out to 50 yards. Yes… 50 YARDS, and 17 feet deep on the diving end to catch divers going off the nine meter board (nope…not the 10 meter, only 9). In today’s numbers this pool is a little shy of a dozen, but in 1927 it was state of the art.

But being a state of the art facility isn’t enough to get you fame, you need to make an impact on swimming itself. In 1934 the head coach at the time, David Armbruster, began developing a method to improve breastroke where swimmers would launch their arms out of the water and recover them through the air. He called it “butterfly.” The next year, an Iowa swimmer named Jack Sieg invented an underwater kicking style to impress people at the annual “Dolphin Show” by swimming the length of the pool underwater. He undulated his body, and kicked with both legs at the same time. He called it the “Dolphin fishtail kick.” Put together, David and Jack invented what we now know as butterfly, and in 1954, it was adopted by FINA as an official stand-alone stroke due to the fact every breastroker in the world now swam “butterfly”.

That’s right, you can blame every hard work out, punishment set and iconic swimming poster on the Field House.

Enough about history, how about some character. We could talk about how swimmer Jock Mahoney would open a trap door in the ceiling and dive into the pool, later using his stuntman talents in Hollywood and playing the original Tarzan. We could mention that the bulkhead is so old it takes a scuba diver to move it, not to mention its 1.5 yard width eats up some of the 50 yard pool, splitting it into a 25 yard and 23.5 yard pool. Or we could spend time on the finicky air conditioner that was either all on or all off, and the swimming and diving coaches would argue about the best temperature and lock up the controls to get the temperature they wanted.

All great memories I’m sure, but I want to talk about my favorite memory. Ever since the 69 million dollar CRWC Natatorium was built across the street in 2010, every swim meet from inter-squads to NCAA Champs was held at the new fancy pool. Except the one year where a glass divider shattered for no reason and fell in the pool, one week before our three day state meet. The CRWC had to be drained, but who was going to host our meet and come to our rescue?


And it was the best swim meet I’d ever coached at. The hard walls and cathedral windows created massive echoes, multiplying the voice of the crowd and cheering teams. The 17 foot deep pool ate up the waves and made for some fast swimming and multiple state records. And the huge record boards with the names of Olympians and world record holders stood over us as if to serve as inspiration. As far as I know, that was that last swim meet held at the Field House.

While I’d love to fight for the pool to stick around (like it did in 2009), even I know it’s time to move on and the CRWC Natatorium is a worthy replacement, already hosting some of the biggest and fastest meets in the nation. Hopefully, in 90 some years we will be replacing it with the next legend in swimming and writing a eulogy full of the history and character of the CRWC. 


Comments posted on Swim Swam


Very eloquent wording of the Fieldhouse – tradition is another word that comes to mind. Fortunate to spend my college career at the Fieldhouse and more so as a Hawkeye! Go Hawks!



Great that it was an eight-lane pool back then. The picture reminds me of Univ. Of Pennsylvania’s Gimbel Gym pool, where Vesper Boat Club trained back in the 60’s and 70’s, replacing their tiny pool space connected to Franklin stadium and the old Philadelphia Aquarium, near Phila Water Works, alongside the Schuylkill River, a pool with huge columns in the middle.



Wow, this brings memories. As a new graduate student at Iowa, 89-92, coming from a communist country, I witnessed golden age of Iowa swimming with the Poland Connection, Arthur Woydat (who won bronze at Seoul Olympics) and Tomasz Gawronski. Woydat still owns bunch of Iowa free long distance records. There was nothing better than a basketball pick up game at the Iowa Field House, rinse, and a swim in this pool next door. Iowa had best basketball pick up games in the country. The Field House was open to public, anyone could come and play basketball, on one of 8 courts, waiting for 3-4 games deep all the time. Now, it is all ruined – first they put parking garage and meters everywhere, then they started requiring student IDs to get in. Now it is everything just a shadow of what it used to be, like everything else at the U of Iowa now days, run by money and by an incompetent President. This Alumni is very sad.





We would go up and do dryland work and play a bit of 4 on 4 (half court) basketball for dryland before swimming 4000 to 4500y some days in the summer. I would have the kids rotate into the game each 1 to 2 minutes (constant subbing). My staff and I got creative with how competitive and intense we could get.

*Winning team got out of a kick set or pull set that day (but all had to do core work before hopping in the pool). Usually it was only 300 to 500y but the bragging rights alone amped the workouts up.



Iowa had a great deal of swimming success in the 1980s as well. In 1981 they broke Indiana’s 20 year streak as Big 10 Champions. On that team were Graeme Brewer, bronze medalist in the 200 free at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and Ron McKeon, a 1980 and 1984 Australian Olympian. Ron McKeon is probably better known as the father of Emma McKeon, who swam on Australia’s 2016 Olympic Gold medal winning 400 free relay.



woah… I never heard about that split bulkhead! I would have included that in the article for sure.



I swam at the Field House in the years before and after the renovation in 1979. The pool was originally 10 (narrow) lanes. The original bulkhead split in two, with the halves swinging out into lanes 1 and 10. That left the 8 middle lanes at a full 50 yards. When the pool was renovated, the diving end was deepened and the number of lanes was reduced to 8. The bulkhead was replaced with a single piece unit, leaving long course at the awkward distance (47.5 yards?). And you thought short course yards to long course meters is hard to convert..





Realizing that most people think of the “new” bulkhead as being is “so old”….. Yikes. I think I need to go lie down.




WOW Karl, you just put me in a Time Machine and took me back to 1988 – 92, to where I cut my NCAA coaching teeth on the deck of the U of Iowa Fieldhouse Pool as an assistant coach with the Hawkeye Men’s Swimming & Diving Team! So many memories have been stirred by this article and the comments of my fellow Hawkeyes (I received my MA in Exercise Science in ’91). I want to thank Psychodad for not just remembering Polish Olympian (’88 & ’92) Artur Wojdat, but also remembering Tomasz Gawronski, a great Polish distance swimmer in his own rights. As the Hawkeye Men’s Distance coach from ’88 – ’92, I had the distinct pleasure of coaching those two, along with fellow All-Americans Stewart Carroll, Erik Bacon and Dan Stoppenhagen.

Here’s the story about how such a large pool was even constructed back in 1927. Legend has it that Coach Armbruster wanted a larger pool to use to train his swimmers and wanted it built on the west campus (west side of the Iowa River), closer to the other athletic facilities (the former pool was in a building in the east campus). The administration simply was not having it due to costs and space required for such an undertaking. Then the university built the first Iowa Medical Teaching Hospital, associated with the Medical School, in the west campus. Of course the structure was built mostly of wood. Well Dr. Armbruster saw his opening and went to the administration and inquired what their plans were, should the new, state of the art, hospital catch fire? He explained the time that would be lost laying water hoses for pumping water from the Iowa River more than a mile away would most certainly spell disaster fro the wooden structure. Then he proposed that building a new, 50 yd pool with a 17 foot diving well, as a water holding tank, right next door to the new hospital, would be an easy fix, having a close by ample water supply to use while hoses were laid from the Iowa River to the hospital in the event of a fire, and the need for a new pool for training his accomplished swim team, thus solving two problems with one pool!! So the Feidhouse pool was built, not so much as a training pool for the swim team, but as a stop gap measure to protect the new wooden medical center. Some of my facts might be a bit off, but this is basically how the pool got built.

One last note. This pool cannot be remembered without the mention of the late, great Irving Weber, Iowa’s first swimming All-America (1922), who, until his passing in 1997, “rang the bell” (a “final lap bell” from the 1968 Tokyo Olympic Swimming meet) to start home swim meets. Irving, an Iowa City native and historian, knew every Hawkeye Men’s Swimming Team member from the first team in 1917, until his passing in 1997…80 years worth of swimmers!!! We celebrated his 90th birthday in 1990 in the Fieldhouse Pool, where he would come and swim laps almost every day, even at age 90+.

Thank You again Karl, such great memories!!!



Thanks for getting Irving in here,he was very involved with Iowa swimming for a longer running time than anyone else, ever! 



I just had another memory jogged! For training, the bulkhead was moved to make the 25 yd course in the shallow end, so the divers could practice in the diving well. This made the diving well an extremely fast pool at 20 ft deep (wave-less!) and 23.5 yds long. I would sometimes take the distance group to the “short end” of the pool and we would challenge them to break the NCAA/US Open Record for the 800 yd Freestyle Relay as a “get out” swim. I can’t recall what times they achieved (that was 26-29 years ago!), but do remember some pretty impressive results that resulted in a shortened training session. Not always, but often enough!



Brad- that is an incredible story! That was some smart politics Dr. Armbruster pulled to get that pool. I may have to add that to the Wiki page on the pool. I can tell you that hospital is so big now they probably would still pump the pool to save it if it was on fire. Glad I could jump start all these great stories.



The Iowa City Eels rented that pool for years in the summer months (afternoons for short course yards training). A favorite pastime of our senior level kids (made up of high school and college athletes) was to try and capture the largest cockroaches from the storage room.
Occasionally the kids would jump off the 5m or quasi 10m platforms after dryland training sessions to start our warm-ups. If it was really hot a coach or two may have joined them.

The Eels also helped run meets (IHSAA & USA-Swimming) meets there too. Lots of fun racing and memories on that deck with great people!



Loved having teams compete in this pool during my coaching days with Des Moines Swimming Federation 1986-89. Great memories and great people in Iowa



Great pool. Some very intense state high school meets, and maybe the loudest swim meet ever when Iowa swam Indiana in 1979 in a dual meet. About 3000 people, the marching band, and herky led the hawks to victory over Doc and the Hoosiers. Some great memories for me as an age group, high school and collegiate swimmer



JJ, at that Indiana dual meet in November 1979, Iowa also unveiled “The Haka” as our team cheer on that pool deck. The crowd went wild. Then there was that amazing Big Ten meet in 1982 where Iowa won at home in very convincing style. Some great swimmers and divers trained in that pool during the 80s and 90s; Brewer, McKeon, Naylor, Roemer, Roberts, Harrison (who kicked 15-20 yards UW off each wall in the 100 back in 1980 at NCAAs), Ross, Wood, Ferris, Wojdat, Szukala, Gawronski, Cwalina, Bacon, Davey, Williams x2, plus Ableman, Stein, Camacho, Blair on the boards. All the great women swimmers in there too like Jager, Olsen, Stewart, Baty and Bowers on the boards. It was dark, it was not beautiful but it was fast and at times, it was magical. Sad to see it go.



The haka that day led by the team kiwis is one of the most electric athletic events I have ever witnessed. Doc did not look pleased!



It was a pleasure to have coached this young man for three years as well!

And yeah, home meets at the Fieldhouse were raucous…definitely a “Home Pool” advantage! Heck, I remember being disappointed if we didn’t draw at least 100 spectators for practice on home football Saturdays….maybe more than that on the really cold days!

Hope all is well JJ! Greetings to you, and the rest of the “Patton clan”, from Caye Caulker, Belize!



Move that puppy to the Pacific North West we could use it and more like it.



My favorite pool and greatest swimming memories! I remember when our State celebrated 8&U swimmers and we had our own Championships at the Fieldhouse. I remember all of us kids surrounding the pool and cheering when Tom Roemer went for his Olympic Trials cut. I remember watching my brother Evan Johnston win a State Championship in the 50 Free while my mom covered her eyes through the whole race. I remember taking lap swimming class for an easy A at U of Iowa when I really needed a good grade. I remember our water polo team crushing the Iowa swim team in a scrimmage (it was so bad that some of the swimmers wanted to switch teams). I remember choking in the 100 back my senior year of high school.

This pool is the most imortant part of my swimming life. Sorry to see it go. They can take away the pool, but they cannot take away my memories. Good thing they’ve built a pretty nice pool to replace the Field House.

As a coach, I’ve had some swimmers make way more important memories in the ‘new’ pool. I’m happy the Field House pool has been replaced with such an awesome pool. I do, however, wish they didn’t have to fill it in for exercise equipment. It will be hard to see when I walk through for football games.

Progress is great. The new pool is great. Now we just need to get a team at U of Iowa that can compete at NCAAs. Go Hawks!



When we dug out the Field House pool from 9’8″ to the current depth (18′ or so), we had to do it by shovel by shovel full…The old walls were not sturdy enough to get heavy equipment in there. Motorized wheel barrows, long sloping ramps and shovel by shovel tedious work (hmm…just like practices). Football players, wrestlers, swimmers, gymnasts on that construction crew…The late Tyrone Dye (Hawk football player…Tye Dye) taught me how to use a 50# jack hammer…As he was demonstrating the use of a loud and powerful jack hammer hammer to me, he mentions (as he is pounding the jack with one hand/arm)…”Eats…ya gots to play with it”…One heck of a powerful man. From Armbruster to Long, Beulah Gundling to Irving Weber to Sougstad, Riis and Jager (take your pick, Tom, Bill or Diane), the old lady of 50 yarders was a glorious home for many many Hawkeyes!…thanks Karl…



That pool touched on the path of numerous swimming titans in addition to those mentioned in the article. For example:

it is where James E. Counsilman became “Doc.” He got his Masters at University of Illinois in 1947 before pursuing his doctorate at Iowa which he completed in 1951, before taking on the moniker by which he was known the rest of his life.

Doc crossed paths briefly in Iowa City with Ron Johnson who was a 4 time All=America training in the Field House pool. Johnson, like Counsilman, became a renaissance man in the sport. He was NCAA coach of the year at Arizona State and later national Masters coach of the year 3 times, the only coach to have won both honors. He stayed in the water himself as time continued, breaking 57 Masters world records.

Each certainly got at least a bit of their creative spark from Armbruster and the atmosphere of the Iowa City Field House pool.



If I’m not mistaken, Doc C and Dr. Armbruster collaborated in inventing the “modern day” (sweep second & minute hands) pace clock on the deck of the U of Iowa Fieldhouse pool.