The University of Louisville broke ground on the Ralph Wright Natatorium on the Belknap Campus Oct. 15, 2003 as donors, student government members, university administrators, athletic department officials and student-athletes looked on.
The Natatorium will not only serve as the men's and women's swimming and diving venue but was designed as a site that will also benefit the U of L student body's use for recreation, fitness and instruction. From the youngest Age-Group swimmers to Master's Swimming events, the architects crafted a multipurpose facility that encompasses NCAA competition as well as United States Swimming events and high school meets. Designed with various competitive levels in mind and maximum usage, the Natatorium will open a state-of-the-art swim facility for a community whose swimming tradition has produced the likes of Mary T. Meagher and some of the world's fastest swimmers.
The Ralph Wright Natatorium will feature an eight-lane, 50-meter competition pool with a depth ranging from 4 feet 6 inches to 18 feet. Movable bulkheads will enable the pool to be divided into two 25-meter or 25-yard competition-ready areas. The deep end will feature two 1-meter boards, two 3-meter boards and a tower with diving platforms at 5-, 7.5- and 10-meters.
Thanks to unprecedented support from the student body, the Natatorium moved from the drawing board towards the groundbreaking. Over the next 20 years, student fees will provide $7 million towards the new complex. U of L students voted in the spring of 1999 to allow $15 of their student fees each semester to be earmarked for the natatorium. That, along with generous private donations, has brought the project to the forefront.
"I take my hat off to the student leadership at this university," said athletic director Tom Jurich. "It is a tremendous statement to have your student body as a full partner in this project. It's unprecedented to have a facility of this magnitude to be erected with the students providing the cornerstone funding."
The 41,000 square foot facility will accommodate up to 800 spectators and athletes. It will include office space, a large meeting/hospitality room and separate locker rooms for the public and for team members.
The natatorium has been designed to be consistent with other Cardinal Park facilities. The building and landscaping will add to the park-like atmosphere on the east side of Belknap Campus.
"The building of the Natatorium vouches for the University of Louisville's commitment to this program and this sport," said Arthur Albiero, U of L head coach.
The Natatorium will be named after Ralph Wright, U of L's first swim coach. A world famous swimmer himself, Wright founded the American Swim Coaches Association and started Plantation Swim Club here in Louisville.
"Ralph Wright was a jewel, one of the nicest men I ever met. He worked us like a slave driver, but he was the consummate motivator and character builder. When you spent time with him, not only did you improve as a swimmer, but you were a better person," said Bernard Dahlem, Dahlem Construction/U of L Donor swimmer from 1948-50.
A strong case can be made for Ralph Wright being the force behind the city of Louisville's competitive swimming and diving tradition. He formed and coached the first Cardinal aquatic team in the 1948-49 school year until 1966. In 1948, he began a successful career at the Louisville YMCA which he led to a Southern YMCA Championship and his swimmers set three national records. After coaching stints at Lakeside Club and Miami's Ransom School, Ralph founded Louisville's Plantation Swim Club in 1957. Plantation grew to become one of the biggest and best teams in the eastern U.S., winning major championships such as the highly competitive Midwest Regional Championships and having 13 first place National Age Group Rankings and 55 Top Ten rankings. He died at the age of 45 in 1966, just before one of his swimmers went on to win an Olympic medal. Suzie Shields won the bronze in the 100-fly in 1968. He founded the American Swim Coaches Association and served on its board for years. He built the first indoor/outdoor competitive pool in the Eastern United States.