Brainerd YMCA seeks helping hands

An organization that's helped people in the Brainerd lakes area for decades is now asking those they've helped for assistance. The lap pool at the Brainerd Family YMCA recently underwent major repairs, the result of finding cracks on the surface ...

An old photo from the Brainerd Family YMCA shows families playing in the lap pool shortly after its opening in 1962. (Contributed photo)
An old photo from the Brainerd Family YMCA shows families playing in the lap pool shortly after its opening in 1962. (Contributed photo)

An organization that's helped people in the Brainerd lakes area for decades is now asking those they've helped for assistance.

The lap pool at the Brainerd Family YMCA recently underwent major repairs, the result of finding cracks on the surface and underneath the pool. The good news is the fixes will result in a pool fit to serve the community for years to come. The bad news is the projects carry a cost of $80,000.

Brainerd Family YMCA CEO Randy Klinger said the facility had already spent $150,000 on other planned improvements this year. Much of the YMCA's capital funding had been reserved for those projects, he said, which means the recent repairs have resulted in a funding shortfall.

"This was totally unforeseen, we didn't expect it," Klinger said. "So that's the major reason we're going out in the community asking them for their support."

Tearing out the old pool and building a new one wasn't an option, Klinger said, because of the enormous expense. The construction process also takes a lot longer than installing a pool liner.


The lap pool, built in 1962, was the first indoor pool in the Brainerd lakes area, Klinger said. Throughout its more than 50 years of existence, the lap pool has been critical in teaching thousands of Brainerd area children how to swim, he said.

Since 1980, the YMCA has partnered with Brainerd Public Schools Community Education to provide one week of free swim lessons for area youths each summer, Klinger said. More than 100 children participate each year, he said, with 161 taking part last year. Approximately 3,534 children have learned to swim through the program over the years, he said.

The YMCA's Dolphin swim team started in the late 1970s with 30 swimmers, the Brainerd Family YMCA reported. In 2014, 175 area youth participated on the swim team. The team competes against swim teams from other Minnesota YMCAs, and since 1998, has taken home nine state championships. Dolphin swimmers currently have 13 state records and two Midwest region records.

Because of the lap pool's significant impact on the area, Klinger said the YMCA is kicking off a fundraising campaign to help defray the costs of the pool repairs. The YMCA is a nonprofit organization like a church, he said, but also a business that tries to responsibly manage its finances.

"We typically try to keep 25 percent of our budget in reserves for these kinds of things, any kind of capital replacements," Klinger said.

To help alleviate the costs associated with repairs, the YMCA recently kicked off a fundraising drive, which looks to bring in $80,000. In addition to the lap pool repairs, the YMCA is also looking to raise funds to renovate and upgrade its family changing rooms.

"As long as we're doing this, we're tying them both in together," Klinger said.

So many people in the community have benefited from using the lap pool, Klinger said, that he's confident the community will step up and support the YMCA in its time of need.


The lap pool fundraising campaign is tied into the YMCA's annual Y Partners campaign, which is normally launched during the fall, Klinger said. The Y Partners campaign is designed to raise money to subsidize memberships and program fees for low-income families.

George Stencel and his company, Carolina Pool Liners, have stepped in to line the lap pool with a state-of-the-art liner which he and his partner adhered to the side of the pool. Stencel has worked in the pool industry for more than 25 years, and a connection to a Bismarck-based company resulted in the company recommending his services to the Brainerd Family YMCA.

The lap pool's floor and walls combine for about 3,400 square feet, Stencel said. The largest pool he's ever lined was close to 18,000 square feet.

The seams on the PVC liner are secured with heat, Stencel said, and once it's properly welded together, it becomes one giant piece. Overall, it took about a week to install the liner on the pool.

To replace the lap pool, it would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Stencel said.

"So they're getting a new pool for a fraction of that cost," Stencel said. "So it's very cost-effective."

Many YMCA and community members have benefited from the lap pool over the years, Klinger said, and a few were eager to share their stories.

Personal impact


Terry McCollough's son Bill was 4 years old in 1973 when the boy contracted an upper respiratory infection which turned into pneumonia, and "he damn near died," Terry McCollough said. Bill was sick for several months, McCollough said, and when the boy recovered, he went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for a checkup.

The doctors there said Bill was missing antibodies other children his age had, which is why he got so sick, McCollough said. Bill would develop those antibodies eventually, but in the meantime, doctors recommended a physical activity regimen to build up his strength. One doctor specifically brought up a YMCA swim program as an option.

"He learned to swim and got on the YMCA swim team and literally it saved his life," McCollough said. "They said if he didn't build up his strength and he got another bout of pneumonia, he might not make it the next time."

Bill kept swimming in high school and college, McCollough said, setting a few Minnesota YMCA swimming records. Now, Bill is in the Brainerd High School Athletic Hall of Fame as a swimmer. He's also in The Brainerd High School Distinguished Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2010.

"I have a very warm spot in my heart for the YMCA, that program has done wonders for so many kids," McCollough said.

Bill is now Lt. Col. Bill McCollough in the Marine Corps and is currently serving his eighth deployment in the Middle East. Now 46 years old, he's in his 25th year in the Marines.

"The YMCA program was kind of the start, the initiator of so many good things he's done," McCollough's dad said. "I really credit it with keeping him healthy and keeping him alive."

Bill still uses swimming as rehab and therapy when he gets back from combat, McCollough said. The weight of the equipment Bill carries, combined with the heat, can break him down.


"So he uses swimming as therapy when he gets back," McCollough said. "He'll go to the pool and just swim laps for miles."

The lap pool went in when Terry McCollough was in high school and his father was publisher of the Brainerd Dispatch. As a thank you for the help in publicizing and organizing the fund drive for the pool, the McColloughs got to take the first dip in the pool.

"So I felt like I kind of helped christen the pool," Terry McCollough said.

Training asset

The YMCA lap pool serves as a crucial training tool for local Ironman triathletes and the Lakes Area Multisport group.

Matt Dickinson got into triathlons in December of 2011, and trains three to four times per week in the lap pool for up to 90 minutes at a time. He said he didn't know what he would do if the pool wasn't available for training.

"There's nothing else like it in the area, unless you had to go to a hotel and use their pool," Dickinson said. "You just wouldn't get anything out of it."

When Dickinson heard the pool was going to be out of commission for a while, he said he was disappointed. But fortunately it was the end of the triathlon season, so all his training was done.


"If it would have been in peak season, it would have been terrible," Dickinson said. "I would have been upset."

The lap pool has turned into a gathering point for area triathletes looking to work on their swimming, Dickinson said. He's asked for and given advice at the lap pool, he said, and has been able to videotape training sessions in a controlled environment.

Michelle Andres, another local triathlete and Lakes Area Multisport group member, said she tries to train in the lap pool on most days and during peak training, swims there Monday through Friday.

"The pool at the YMCA is really our only place in Brainerd for us to be able to get lap swimming in," Andres said.

Brainerd is surrounded by lakes, but the chances to get out and swim in those lakes don't come around often, Andres said. Instead, triathletes can rely on the lap pool for year-round training.

"If something happened to the pool, you're just out of luck," Andres said. "There really is nowhere else to go to train."

Like Dickinson, Andres said the only benefit to the lap pool's shutdown is the timing, that it happened at the end of the triathlon season.

"Everyone's pretty much taking a break from it," Andres said. "So it was good timing in terms of all of the triathletes in the area that use the pool."


At the beginning

Shortly after the lap pool opened in 1962, it got one of its first lifeguards. Dave Runberg, 66, started lifeguarding at the pool in 1966 because he was hanging around the YMCA a lot after school, he said.

"I hadn't had any lifeguard training or anything, I just knew how to swim," Runberg said.

Two weeks after Runberg started, he took the proper lifeguard training and became certified. In the summers, Runberg used to oversee moonlight swims. On some Friday nights after the sun went down, he'd turn on the underwater pool lights and turn off the other lights for a cool effect.

"I was lifeguarding at the moonlight swim and I brought records from home," Runberg said. "So I had the phonograph going, music playing, underwater lights on and lifeguarding."

Runberg served as a lifeguard at the YMCA from the age of 15 to 22, before moving on to something else, he said. He's kept up his lifeguard certification ever since, and has been a lifeguard at a few pools around the country before moving back to Brainerd.

Now Runberg works at the pool at Brainerd High School, where he works as an educational assistant helping special education students swim.

"I got to keep them safe, you know," Runberg said.

Lifelong swimmer

Margie Schaefer was born and raised in the Brainerd lakes area and she said via email the lap pool has been a staple in her life. She took swimming lessons there, swam laps with her sister and learned to respect the water, herself and others there.

"I use the lap pool for physical and mental exercise," Schaefer said. "It has also helped me rehabilitate through an injury, and currently I am using it to pay it forward by teaching my nephew's children how to swim."

The aquatic center at the YMCA helped absorb some of the impact of the lap pool's closure, Schaefer said, and staff have worked hard to make things work with the resources they have.

The lap pool has provided numerous health benefits to Schaefer, but it's about more than that, she said.

"(It's) the opportunity to meet some very incredible people and the friendships I have built throughout the years is something I honestly cherish each and every day," Schaefer said.

When Schaefer first heard the pool would be closed, she said her thoughts went to the members that use the pool for different water exercise classes, as well as the kids who were only weeks away from the start of the Dolphin swim team season.

"The aquatic center has two lap lanes in it, but that is neither deep enough nor large enough to accommodate either program," Schaefer said.

Because of the lap pool's significance in her life, Schaefer said she's absolutely thinking about making a contribution to the fundraiser to help with the lap pool repair costs.

"My family has four generations of access to this facility and I know all four will continue to support it," Schaefer said. "I hope that everyone who had the opportunity to enjoy the wellness the pool has offered will consider making a contribution. The community we live in with the access to the numerous amount of beautiful lakes, the act of learning to swim is essential."

Family of swimmers

Deb Eberts, secretary on the YMCA Board of Directors, swam on the Dolphin swim team as a kid when her father, Dick Piepgrass, was on the board. She learned to swim there and now her kids swim on the team.

With all the lakes in the area, swimming is a vital skill for everyone to have, Eberts said. The YMCA makes sure everyone has the chance to learn to swim, she said.

"Anybody and everybody can be able to participate...with financial assistance," Eberts said. "It's not something that should be prohibitive."

If there was no lap pool, Eberts said she'd be disappointed, because that would mean the Dolphin swim team would go away.

"It's a very popular thing for kids to participate in," Eberts said. "And I think it's a great family and community sport."

When she heard about the crack in the lap pool, Eberts said she was worried it wouldn't be able to be repaired and a new pool might have to be built.

"I was disappointed for my kids," Eberts said. "They really enjoy swim team. I was glad they were able to find a way to work around it temporarily."

Because of her family's deep involvement with the lap pool, Eberts said she was planning on participating in the fundraiser to help with the repair costs. Her dad swam laps in the pool, Eberts and her brother swam laps in the pool and now her kids swim laps in the pool.

Swimming physician

Dr. John Berg has been using the lap pool for 23 years, and it's the first thing he looked into when he was interviewing for a position at Brainerd Medical Center.

"Literally, the very first stop that I made in town was to check out the Y and make sure there was a pool," Berg said. "If it wouldn't have been for the Y, I don't think I would've been employed at the Brainerd Medical Center and never would have come to town."

Berg used to be an avid runner when he was in the Army stationed in Germany. When he moved back stateside to El Paso, Texas, there were no good, safe places to run in the desert, so a colleague turned him onto swimming in the base's excellent, Olympic-sized pool.

Berg uses the lap pool at the YMCA about four times per week during the winter months to do long-distance swimming. To him, the lap pool represents something simple.

"Sanity," Berg said. "It's a place where I can just let the stresses of the day, they just kind of disappear for me in the pool."

Berg extends his outdoor lake swimming pretty late into the fall, so the lap pool's repair time didn't affect him much. He was confident the YMCA would get it fixed, and has had the chance to try the new and improved lap pool.

"It's great with the new lighting and the liner," Berg said. "It's really great."

No arms, no problem

Steve Larson learned to swim in the lap pool in 1971, and George "Smokey" Nelson, a swim instructor at the time, gave Larson individual instruction. Larson was born without arms, so it was imperative for him to learn how to swim, he said, because it would be much easier for him to drown.

Nelson gave Larson a mask and flippers, and sat him down on the pool ledge at the deep end of the pool. After about four hours of inaction, Larson said Nelson gave him a little nudge, in order to speed things along.

"I kind of drifted to the bottom of the pool, looked around, and didn't think anything of it," Larson said. "Then I popped my head up and he said I made up swear words, I called him every word in the book. I don't remember any of this."

That swimming lesson was a pivotal moment for Larson, and it helped him change from fearing the water to respecting it. Now, he swims three times a week either in the lap pool or in a lake, which he's done for 35 years.

"It's really important, when you have a severe disability, you've got to be able to use every ability that you do have," Larson said. "And of course my legs are very strong, and that's the way that I stay fit."

To Larson, the lap pool isn't just a place to work out, but it's an institution and a vital part of the community.

"Without that pool, the quality of life in Brainerd wouldn't be what it is," Larson said. "And for quite some time, there wasn't any pool, until that pool was built."

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or . Follow on Twitter at .

What To Read Next
Get Local