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Olympic-size goals

When Olympic silver medalist Maritza Correia returned recently to the Brandon Swim and Tennis Club, her training facility for more than a decade, a cavalcade of young swimmers lined up for her autograph.

"Dream big!" she wrote on each photograph.

These days, Correia isn't the only one with big dreams.

Officials at her old club hope to raise their international swim profile with ambitious plans to raise money and expand.

The 41-year-old club announced a host of changes last week. For starters, there's a new name, the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center. And over the next few years, the club plans to build new facilities, including a new indoor pool, a fitness center and even a water park.

The ultimate goal: to someday host the Olympic swimming and/or diving trials.

"We're hopeful that we'll be able to land the Olympic trials, if not for '08, then for 2012," said Ron Kurpiers, president of the aquatic center's board of directors.

Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, swimming in Brandon?

"We know that's a big dream, to get to that point," said board secretary Dean Graves. "But that type of facility is what we ultimately strive to build."

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Youth participation dropped sharply when revered swimming coach Peter Banks, a former Irish and U.S. Olympic team coach, left the club in 2001.

Throughout the 1990s, the Brandon Blue Wave swim team had well over 100 members. In 2002, it had just 23.

Team membership has rebounded, and officials hope the expansion will boost interest.

Final plans, costs and a construction timeline will depend on how much money the nonprofit club can raise in the next two years. But club officials expect to build:

+ An indoor 50-meter pool with a 10-meter diving well for up to $4-million. When that's complete, the club will renovate its aging outdoor pool. "We want to get back into the realm of competition," Graves said. "Upgrading the pool facility will put us in contention to host, initially, some regional meets and then hopefully some national meets."

+ New lights at the 10 tennis courts, with two more lighted courts to come.

+ A 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot workout room for adults that could include a spinning room. It may overlook the outdoor pool so parents can watch their children while they work out.

+ A water park with slides, pools and water guns, to be open to the public during summers.

Never in its 41 years has the program attempted such a facelift. Board members are meeting with architects in the next few weeks and hope to have renderings of the expanded facilities within two months. Says Rich Haskins, the club's executive director: "I think it will be reality probably within a year or two."

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Will it, though? Nothing is set in stone; the club has yet to secure the proper zoning requirements for a water park from the county, and it is still negotiating to buy 8 nearby acres for the expansion.

And then there is the cost. As recently as two years ago, the club took in less than $2-million, most of which went back into facilities. In 2002, the organization's assets were valued at about $821,000.

That year, the club received less than $15,000 in direct public support.

Now it hopes, in just a few years, to raise $8- to $15-million.

This year, the club set out to debunk a public perception that it is a for-profit business.

In the spring the board hired a public affairs specialist, Jill Boudreaux, a former spokeswoman for the Florida State Fair and American Cancer Society. Boudreaux has sent near-weekly updates to local media outlets on club news _ the hiring of Haskins, the progress of a local diving star. Each of her e-mails contains the same reminder: The club is a nonprofit.

Anne McFee, a club tennis instructor from 1991 to 1994, recently returned to help raise money.

This year, the aquatic center broke a four-decade partnership with Coca-Cola in favor of a more lucrative deal with Pepsi, providing poolside banners, funding and drinks for swimmers. Kurpiers said the organization has targeted national Olympic sponsors and plans to sell naming rights to the new facilities.

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So what would it take for Brandon to land the Olympic trials?

This year's events in Long Beach, Calif., were wildly successful, drawing nearly 70,000 people over eight days.

The trials were held in a temporary outdoor arena with portable seats and pools. But the venue was almost a secondary concern.

Long Beach showed it could handle the crowd, personnel, television and sponsorship concerns, not to mention the $5-million price tag associated with staging the trials, said Mike Unger, chief operating officer of USA Swimming.

It might be too late for Brandon to compete for the 2008 trials, Unger said. For 2012, the aquatic center would have to pay a fee, demonstrate its ties to the international swimming community and prove it could handle 5,000 to 10,000 fans each day.

The aquatic center has temporary seating for about 150. Graves _ whose 10-year-old daughter, Giorgie, is among the top young swimmers in the state _ says the club has looked into building more permanent stands.

As for international ties, Olympians Correia and Brooke Bennett of Plant City are alumni. Banks was the 2000 National Swim Coach of the Year. The club's current swim coach, Laura Ghilik-Micu, once coached the Romanian Olympic team, and assistant coach Mio Vasic is a Yugoslavian record holder and onetime U.S. champion in distance swimming.

Brandon wouldn't be the first midsize market to pursue a major Olympic trial competition. Chapel Hill, N.C., with a population of 50,000, was considered for the 2004 swimming trials.

"We decided that if we're going to keep it going for another 41 years, these are the things we've got to do," Kurpiers said. "We have the support of the community to do it, and we certainly have the history behind us."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlinsptimes.com.

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