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TRYING A KICK TURN

Famed aquatic and sports center seeks a comeback.

The low, square compound is tucked away on 12 acres off Lithia Pinecrest Road in an older neighborhood of tiny duplexes and concrete block homes.

The Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center opened in 1963. It was the crown jewel of the neighborhood, a place for regular kids to hang out in the summer and for gifted ones to dream of glory. World class divers, swimmers, tennis players and gymnasts trained here.

"We know not every kid is going to make it to the Olympics but we can give them an Olympic experience," executive director Chuck Burgess said.

These days, that might be easier said than done. Faced with increased competition and deteriorating facilities, the center is struggling to return to its former prominence.

BSAC, formerly known as the Brandon Swim and Tennis Club, was originally a for-profit athletics club. Today it is a nonprofit membership facility similar to the YMCA.

It has from the very beginning been associated with greatness. Every four years since 1968, an athlete who at some point trained at the center has made it to the summer Olympics.

Swimmer Brooke Bennett and diver Bruce Kimball are probably the most well-known.

"There's not very many places like this," said Peter Banks, the center's longtime swim coach who led Bennett to two gold medals in 2000 and that same year was named Coach of the Year by the American Swim Coaches Association.

In its heyday from the late 1980s through the 1990s, Brandon Swim and Tennis was known throughout the world. Teams and coaches from places such as Ireland, Yugoslavia and China came here to train.

The 1992 U.S. Olympic diving team used BSAC as its final training and staging area before heading to Barcelona.

But the center's diving program declined, perhaps in part because of the publicity surrounding Kimball's 1988 car crash. In Brandon, training for the Olympics, Kimball got drunk and crashed his car into a group of teenagers. Two were killed and Kimball went to prison.

Banks said the decline was more about poor management. He won't go so far as to place blame, but he said this: "A business is a business and for many years this was a family business. It's outgrown that."

The swim team almost collapsed when Banks left in 2001.

In 2004, buoyed by a reorganization, BSAC's board of directors announced ambitious expansion plans, including an indoor pool, a water park and a goal to bid for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Banks returned as swim coach and became executive director.

The center, now a nonprofit facility struggling to make money, decided to put the building plans on hold and instead launched several new programs, including a preschool, summer camp and martial arts.

The preschool was closed earlier this year, but an after-school program has 120 kids enrolled.

"You can't be everything to everybody and you can't run programs just to run programs," Banks said

Tax records from 2006 show the center took in $1.75-million but spent $1.92-million. Other recent years show similar deficits.

"There were times in the last three years where it was pretty tough," Banks said, stopping short of saying BSAC was in danger of closing.

BSAC's buildings and land are assessed at $1.8-million, according to county property records. The facility consists of three buildings with 37,408 square feet of indoor space and outdoor covered areas of10,000 square feet.

That doesn't include the Olympic size pool and deck or the tennis courts, playground or grassy areas.

Even simply maintaining the pool is a struggle on a tight budget, Burgess said.

"You could take a million bucks and put it into this place and you wouldn't see it," he said.

Property records show there haven't been any major improvements since some paving was done in 1975. It's not clear if the new pool or water park will ever be built.

"We've been sort of trying to get our feet under us," said Burgess, who was hired in the spring after a job as director of an Orlando YMCA.

Membership in the Blue Wave Swim Team has soared to 220 members, 100 compete in gymnastics at the center and 50 kids play tennis here, according to marketing director Lori Bukaweski.

Today is one of the center's biggest annual fundraisers, the Breakfast of Champions featuring past athletes.

The center also hopes to apply for grants and other funding, and establish more profitable programs.

"Our goal is to make money," Banks said. "We have to make money to survive."

Jan Wesner can be reached at jwesner@sptimes.com or 661-2439. Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

BSAC through the years

1967 Dick Kimball, whose son Bruce would go on to the Olympics and later be involved in a devastating car crash, started the Kimball Diving Camp at the center.

1968 Diver Micki King makes the U.S. Olympic team.

1972 Four BSTC divers qualify for the Olympics, including King, who takes home a gold medal, and silver medalist Dick Rydze.

1975 Divers Phil Boggs and Janet Ely win gold medals at the world championships.

1984 Bruce Kimball earns a silver at the Olympics. Ron Merriot and another diver win bronze.

1996 Brooke Bennett wins gold at the Olympic games.

1998 Swimmer Sue Moucha takes gold at the International Paralympics Championships.

2000 Bennett wins two Olympic gold medals.

2004 Swimmer Maritza Correia wins silver in Athens.

2008 Diver Chris Colwill and swimmer Golda Marcus (representing El Salvador) compete in the Beijing Olympics.

Source: Times research

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