New F.A.S.T. Swimming Facility to Change Sports and Tourism Landscape in Ocala
Within the massive new Calesa Township development west of Ocala sits a glass-and-concrete edifice that demands explanation. It’s a three-story, 82,000-square-foot swimming facility being built for the Ocala/Marion County community by the Circle Square Foundation, which is affiliated with On Top of the World Communities. Virtually everyone involved in the project believes it is going to change sports and tourism locally.
The Florida Aquatic and Swimming Training facility, or F.A.S.T., is the $38 million vision of On Top of the World Communities President Ken Colen. As F.A.S.T. nears completion this month, it offers two Olympic-size pools, including one indoors, and a host of amenities that makes the complex one of the finest in the nation.
Initially envisioned as a community pool to replace the College of Central Florida’s aging and decaying Newton Perry Aquatic Center, Colen planned to build a pool that would serve the needs of the area’s residents, first responders and swim teams. Once CF determined it would have to close the Perry pool, Colen stepped up.
What was eventually built, though, is so much more than a community pool where children can learn to swim, people of all ages can exercise and local high school and club swim teams can practice and compete.
“The vision of helping our community was expanded to include the larger global swimming community,” said Rebecca Rogers, executive director of the Circle Square Foundation of which Colen is trustee.
The range of audiences F.A.S.T. intends to serve is broad and deep, just like its pools. Rogers and F.A.S.T.’s newly hired swimming coach, Brian Shrader, both said that the intent behind the facility is to first serve local residents, from youngsters learning to swim and seniors seeking to stay fit to first responders training to save lives and high school teams competing. But by expanding the facility to two pools, as well as adding elite training and coaching facilities, they say it will also be a ”destination” for some of the best swimmers and swim teams in the country, indeed the world.
“It’s going to be about the 6-year-old who comes through here and goes on to the Olympic trials,” said the 54-year-old Shrader, who was a competitive high school and college swimmer before embarking on a coaching career that included stops at collegiate powerhouses Florida and Texas and stint on the Olympic team coaching staff. “One of the things that’s going to happen locally is these high schools are going to get good.”
Among the things F.A.S.T. will offer the community will be free swimming lessons for every third-grader in Marion County who wants them.
Construction began on the project in 2020. After scrapping the original plan for a single, outdoor community pool and deciding to build an indoor pool, the F.A.S.T. developers consulted with former UF and Olympic head coach Greg Troy on what he thought the facility should further entail. One of Troy’s first suggestions was a second pool outdoors. Colen embraced the idea.
What evolved was a massive expansion of the original concept. The enclosed pool, known as a natatorium, would be joined by a second Olympic-size pool, as well as outdoor areas for children and families.
During the F.A.S.T. team’s research on how to proceed with the facility, the group attended the 2021 Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb., in part, to see how a major national meet is run.
After the visit, the group found out that it could buy one of the pools used at the Olympic trials. The metal pools by the Italian firm Myrtha, are pieced together like a puzzle and had been erected in the Omaha convention Center for the Olympic trials. F.A.S.T. ultimately bought the warm-up pool used at Olympic trials and it is now in the ground in Ocala.
When it opens on March 22, the natatorium will feature an indoor 10-lane, 50-meter/25-yard Olympic competition pool, deck space for up to 800 swimmers, and over 2,000 spectator seats. The seven-lane 50-meter/25-yard/25-meter outdoor pool will be competition caliber and will have 700 fixed bleacher seats with additional viewing from a covered second floor viewing area. A splash pool with seating and shade is available for younger swimmers.
The facility will also house an indoor dryland fitness center, state-of-the-art scoreboards, men’s and women’s locker rooms, and community meeting spaces.
Shrader, who will coach the F.A.S.T. Falcons, the competitive team that will call F.A.S.T. home, believes the new facility will not only be a hit with local residents, but will attract some of the nation’s best swimmers to come here and train.
“We will have Olympians training in this facility,” Shrader told OM. “They will come because it’s such a remarkable place.”
Shrader cited the new weight room and fitness center that will be in the facility – designed specifically with championship swimmers in mind … and with some of their input.
“It’s one of the reasons teams will come here to train,” he said. “It’s a one-stop shop where they can weight train and swim in the same building.”
Rogers, the foundation executive, said once the decision was made to build a world-class aquatic center, Colen and his team set out to make it the best it could be in order to attract not only as many local residents as possible, but as many competitive swimmers and swim teams as possible.
“We have offered everything they could want, including coaching,” she said.
And it’s not just the big things like the weight room, specially designed locker rooms or the two Olympic pools that make F.A.S.T. special. For example, a special ventilation system has been installed to minimize the chlorine smell in the natatorium, which often is offensive in enclosed pool facilities. Also, the indoor pool is designed to minimize waves caused by the swimmers. And, finally, while most major competitive pools run about 8 or 9 feet deep, the indoor pool at F.A.S.T. starts at 9 feet deep and goes to 13 feet, and as Shrader put it, “deeper is faster.”
“What makes a pool ‘fast’ is depth,” he said. “The deeper, the faster. There will be records set here.
“It’s going to be fun to see what happens.”
What Colen, Rogers, Shrader and those in the economic development community expect to happen is that F.A.S.T. will become not only a bustling recreation center for the community but a major destination for competitive swimmers from around the country.
“This is the swim version of WEC (The World Equestrian Center),” said Kevin Sheilley, president/CEO of the Ocala Metro Chamber &Economic Partnership.
For Sheilley, F.A.S.T. combined with WEC once again will make Ocala a tourist destination of a new kind – a sports tourism destination – a half century after the relative demise of Silver Springs as a major attraction.
“For the first time in 50 years – since the opening of Disney – tourism will not be the economic driver, but it will be an economic driver,” he said.
On Top of the World Communities is already planning a hotel near its entrance on State Road 200, in part, to serve the visitors F.A.S.T. is expected to draw.
An economic impact study by GAI Consultants in May 2020 projects that the aquatic facility will increase year-round visitation in Marion County by 12 percent, which will result in an 8 percent increase in county tourist development tax revenues, or about $257,000 per year.
In addition, F.A.S.T. is expected to create 425 jobs throughout the community, producing $12 million in new wages and an overall $34 million economic impact on Ocala/Marion County.
During a recent CEP gathering, Colen noted that On Top of the World Communities has grown by 5,000 residents since 2014 and Calesa Township is expected to bring 5,000 more. That growth, he said, necessitates a community aquatic facility.
“It’s really important to have a good aquatic center for the community,” he told the group. “I think teaching children to swim is fundamental to their healthy development and certainly their survival,” he said. “It builds so many things, self-confidence, grit. It’s lessons learned that flow through life.”
Nonetheless, Colen also said he recognizes that F.A.S.T. has the potential to be an economic driver.
“With an enterprise like F.A.S.T., and I use the term ‘enterprise’ purposely, it can be another economic driver for Marion County,” he said.
“What we’ll bring in swim meets and attendance puts heads in beads and butts in restaurant seats, on and on. It’s a real economic driver, a multiplier in this county.”
Troy, the former UF coach and now consultant to F.A.S.T., said it will drive more than the local economy. It will change swimming here and beyond.
“It’s not just a local driver,” Troy said. “It’s going to be a regional driver, a state driver. It has the potential to be an international driver.”
“ … It just blew me away how well it is planned. It’s going to be a destination for a lot of people to come train. It’s going to be literally one of the top three destination facilities in the country.”
He expects 2,000-5,000 athletes to visit F.A.S.T. its first year.
The nearly finished facility is not already attracting the attention of the swimming world. In addition to having meets scheduled for May and July, including a week-long visit by a New Jersey swim team, F.A.S.T. has received sponsorship support from TYR, a major maker of swimming gear. TYR is also sponsoring the F.A.S.T. Falcons and will have a store in the facility.
Shrader said the few meets already scheduled in the coming months are just the start of much bigger things.
“Our goal is to have every coach who comes through here and every parents to say, ‘We want to come back,’” he said. “And, we want to be an economic driver, but we want to serve the community.
“It just a great thing.”
Sheilley thinks Shrader is spot on.
“What excited me is it will increase tourism by 12 percent, and I think that is conservative,” he said. “Because everything Ken Colen does, he undersells and overdelivers.”
F.A.S.T will hold its grand opening Saturday, March 26. To find out more about F.A.S.T., go to its website at floridafast.com.