Where Else Do You Get to Float? A Conversation with Olympian Dana Grant

by: Clarence D. Mamuyac, Jr., FAIA, LEED AP BD+C
Dana Grant, who swims as Dana Vollmer, recently joined the ELS team as an aquatics and sports programming specialist. She is a five-time Olympic Gold Medalist and current member of the USA Swimming National Team. For years, she has also been interested in design.

She brings together these two passions at ELS as we expand our firm’s expertise in programming aquatic, wellness and sports facilities. We recently spoke to her about her evolving career.

How much does an aquatic facility impact the performance of a swimmer?

When trying to stay calm during a competition athletes often say to themselves “It’s the same pool, same distance, same blocks. Just Race!” Regardless of our mantras, the facility does impact your performance. We try to combat these effects through routines in practice for foreseeable changes at the competition venue. It might have to do with a range of details: the temperature of the water, the light on the water, the shadows on the wall, the proximity to an audience, the length you have to walk between heats and the space you have available for stretching when you’re warming up.

When did you first get interested in design?

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be either an interior designer or a cardiothoracic surgeon. I would rearrange my room every week. I loved drawing floor plans and designing fantasy houses for my friends. When I became a swimmer, I grew more interested in the body and how it worked in the water emphasizing my interest in health and medicine.

When I graduated from UC Berkeley, however, I didn’t want to go to medical school. I looked at design schools and considered a new career after swimming. At first I thought it would be quite different from swimming. I met Clarence Mamuyac, a principal at ELS, at an event at the new pool his firm designed at Cal. We talked about different kinds of pools and athletic facilities and how they could be designed better for the people who use them.

Can you tell me some spaces that inspire you?

The London Aquatics Centre that Zaha Hadid designed for the London Olympics inspired me. You walked in and felt like you made it. Everything about the space reinforced the excitement.

Often I walk into a facility and look at the different aspects and wonder, why did the architect or designer make that decision? Why that color behind the art? Why are the displays so poorly lit? That might sound negative, but in competitive swimming, I found that I was always more motivated by getting beat. If I came in second place, or further down, I was inspired to work harder. I guess it’s like that to some degree with design. How could I contribute to making this space better?

Dana Grant takes off at the London Olympics
Tell us about some of your design classes so far.

My professors have all been architects. One of my projects I designed a waterfall café on top of a hotel. I wanted to use the meditative sound of water in the design. I loved the drawing and drafting classes the most. Some of my recent classes have been on healthcare design and color theory. It’s fascinating to see how these two things work together. We are always talking about lighting and its impact on a space.

Tell us about lighting in aquatic centers.

There are some spaces that you are in awe of as soon as you enter. This was true in the London Aquatics Centre. Most of the time, we are not used to large crowds watching us. There, you could hardly make out the spectators at the top. With indoor or even subterranean pools, they are just dungeons. I don’t like competing in those.

What else about competitive pools for elite athletes?

I think a building that reinforces the excitement helps your performance. You walk in and feel like you’ve made it to the big show.

What about pools for laps or even recreational and family swim?

Now that I swim with my two-year-old, I am just as aware of the environment as I was before. But you become aware of different aspects. If you are not moving vigorously, you want a warmer pool.

I want my son to have a positive experience with water. One big reason to get kids in the water early is that they will be more comfortable with it, and that means they will be safer. I like the zero-depth entry. It’s important that he can get his feet on the ground and that he can recover himself. A place to get his face splashed and a place to climb are good too. Kids should have more than a playground in the water. They should have some interactive activities. I am right there balancing and floating in two feet of water to show him my comfort level.

Dana with Arlen at his first swim lesson
Are there new experiences to be had, even for an Olympian?

Oh yes. I swam for elite performance my entire life. You are always reaching for that next level. Throughout my career I have realized that there are different ways to think about this work. I enjoy playing around with the physics of the body moving through water. This knowledge is still relatively young. Olympians have been running competitively for thousands of years, but swimming didn’t become a competitive sport until the late 19th century. The science of how people move through water keeps improving. How people move in the 100-meter butterfly in 10 years may be very different.

Can you give me another example?

How I use the buoyancy of my lungs to propel me, versus relying just on brute strength. It’s small aspects such as this that helped me to becoming the fastest woman in history in the 100m butterfly at the London Olympics without necessarily being the strongest muscularly.

Where else do you train?

While at Cal, we practiced in a wave pool. I have done a lot of training in the ocean. All of those different environments can help you.

If I came in second place, or further down, I was inspired to work harder. I guess it’s like that to some degree with design. How could I contribute to making this space better?

What about those dungeons, the ugly pools underground without windows?

They may not be ideal, but some can be great training environments. As long as there is water, you can learn something about how the body moves, and figure out ways to get faster. One of the trainers who I have worked with thinks that we won’t be training in rectangular pools in the future.

We have to talk more about that in another post. What was it like to swim in the pool in Rio?

The fans were closer. I liked the fan interaction. My parents were five rows away from me. I could see their facial expressions when I got out of the pool.

What does a fan not know about elite competition facilities?

There is a lot of walking. Walking from the pool to the media, to warm down, to drug testing, to get a beverage for hydration. We actually have scheduled walk-throughs before the competition so we know where to go.

What are a few improvements that many pools could benefit from?

Athletes want more space to warm up, to stretch. Often all of the athletes can’t fit into the pool to warm up at the same time. It’s something I love about Stanford. Three pools!

Do you have a favorite new pool?

In good weather, I enjoy the pool that your friend Mark Schatz designed in Livermore. My son loves it!

What attracted you to swimming?

Where else do you get to float? I loved that while you are working hard, you also have sensation all over. It can be meditative. I love the sound deprivation. I still put my ears under the water in a bathtub just like you do when you are little. Generally, swimmers of all kinds have an innate love of the water. When I was 12, I loved watching how my shadow moved on the bottom of the pool while I imagined being a mermaid. There has to be an element of fun. To be honest, it was a combination of fun and love that made my competitive swimming career so long.

Can you tell us about another great moment in swimming?

It happens very young. It’s when you learn how to have the water hold you. You’ve learned how to take care of yourself in water. Watching kids when they take their water wings off and know the water will hold them is a beautiful moment. And then they want to do it forever.