The Empire Pool: A lengthy reign

For much of its 60 years, this beloved campus landmark dominated recreational life at UBC.

For decades, UBC’s Point Grey campus had no swimming pool. It wasn’t until 1954, when the university hosted swimming events for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, that a pool first appeared. Located outside the War Memorial Gym and named the Empire Pool in honour of its grand beginnings (Prince Philip had presided poolside), its waters quickly became the site of more motley splashing. The pool was the backdrop of sun-soaked summer days for generations of students and Vancouverites. It also hosted just about any aquatic activity you can think of – canoe lessons, Aqua Lung demonstrations, synchronized swimming, lifeguard trainings, and, according to The Ubyssey, the first competitive game of water polo ever played in Vancouver.

The Empire Pool saw its fair share of shenanigans too. Larry Fournier (BCom’61) told this magazine (then called TREK) that on Halloween night in 1955, pranksters dragged a speedboat into the pool. The boat’s owner – an accounting student – had a sense of humour: when he hauled out his boat, he took it for a spin, “motoring down the pool and leaving a nice wake.”

Besides the pranks and summer camps, the Empire Pool was the site of serious athletic feats, and UBC’s reputation for formidable swimming quickly grew.

By the 1970s, the seasonal Empire Pool was struggling to keep up with demand: Thunderbirds and community members alike wanted year-round swimming. With additional indoor facilities, the Aquatic Centre opened its doors in 1978, and the two pools ran concurrently for decades. They helped produce dozens of Olympians including Bill Mahony and Wendy Cook, Paralympians like Walter Wu, and world-record breakers like Annamay Pierse. In the famous “Decade of Dominance” (1998-2007), the Thunderbirds won 10 consecutive men’s and women’s national championships.

Eventually the outdoor facilities, though beloved, started to seem quaint. The Empire Pool “meets no standards whatsoever,” Chris Neale, then facilities manager of the Aquatic Centre, told The Ubyssey in 2004. “She’s too shallow, she’s basically at the end of her life, she leaks, and the return inlets from the pool push you into the second and third lane, so it’s quite disruptive when you’re swimming lengths in the outside lanes.” A filtration issue spelled the end, and the Empire Pool closed on its 60th anniversary. The Aquatic Centre, facing its own set of maintenance issues, met with a similar fate a few years later.

UBC’s new Aquatic Centre opened in 2017 and is able to accommodate almost 1,000 swimmers. It has a 50-metre competition pool, a 25-metre multi-purpose pool, a leisure pool (with a lazy river), two diving boards, a rope swing, a sauna, a steam room, and a 34-person hot tub. The $39M building combines splendour with sustainability, recycling rainwater to save 2.7 million litres of water each year. While its sleek interiors might never inspire the same widespread affection as the well-worn Empire Pool, it’s a more-than-worthy 21st century successor.