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Beverly Hills Swim Gym combines diverse sports

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In a community perhaps better known for a television show featuring a transplanted hillbilly family and another one with an upscale high school sporting a now-famous zip code, Beverly Hills, California, is home to one of the nation’s most unique high school athletic facilities.

That venue is known as the “Swim Gym,” and it’s located in Beverly Hills High School (BHHS). It accommodates sports that at first blush don’t seem to quite go together ‑ basketball/volleyball and swimming/water polo. In addition, it can also handle wrestling. Without question, it gives completely new meaning to the term “multi-sport facility.”

When a person first walks into the Swim Gym, he or she will witness an innocuous-appearing wood floor accommodating basketball and volleyball courts. However, with the simple turn of a key and the push of a button, the floor parts from the center to reveal a 25-yard-long swimming pool located beneath it.

Making that action possible are two large motors on each side of the gym. The floor rolls on guide tracks and everything is controlled at a control panel located near midcourt.

The Swim Gym was designed by Stiles O. Clements and was built in 1939 by the Work Projects Administration as a New Deal project. Due to space constraints, the pool has seven lanes instead of the traditional eight. In addition, it has a shallow end, which negates the opportunity for BHHS to host water polo playoff matches.

Coaching the BHHS swimming and water polo programs for the past nine seasons has been Rob Bowie. During that time, Bowie has led the boys water polo program to a 140-94 win-loss record and the girls water polo program to a 72-95 record. Along the way, he has led squads to two league titles in boys water polo and one league title in boys swimming. Bowie feels that the facility gets more usage than ever.

“The Swim Gym is in constant use,” Bowie said. “When it was first built, Beverly Hills High had only a boys swim team and a boys basketball team. Now, we have boys and girls volleyball, boys and girls water polo, boys and girls basketball, and boys and girls swimming. On top of that, the City of Beverly Hills Parks and Recreation Department uses it for its youth basketball and aquatics programs. It's a busy place to say the least and makes scheduling games and practice times pretty difficult.

“It’s used for all varsity and under-level basketball, water polo, volleyball and swimming events. We've held a huge invitational here for years, but are not doing so this year. The pool is only seven lanes, as opposed to the usual eight that most championship pools have. The size also prevents us from having warm-up and warm-down lanes, so more and more teams have been dropping out of the invitational.” 

Given its close proximity to Hollywood, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s been featured several times in movies and on television. Perhaps its most famous entertainment medium inclusion was in Frank Capra’s classic 1946 movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” as the location of the dance.

In it, there’s a scene in which Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are dancing the Charleston at the high school prom on the basketball court. Then all of a sudden, the floor comes apart to reveal the swimming pool beneath it and they fall into the water.

Beverly Hills High School was featured in the 1993 movie version of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In that film, Elly May Clampett attended school there, where she overpowered the boys on the wrestling team.

Ironically, the 1990s television series “Beverly Hills, 90210” was not shot there. The producers originally wanted to film the series at Beverly Hills High School, but the school board rejected that request. As such, the exterior shots for the program were shot at Torrance (California) High School, some 20 miles away.

Bowie feels that this unique facility does provide a measure of home court (or is it “home pool”?) advantage.

“I think we do have a home court advantage in water polo, but that is mostly because one end of the pool is shallow, which I personally think is awful,” Bowie said. “I actually think our team plays better in all deep pools, but opponents coming into our pool definitely are at a disadvantage if they are not used to playing in a shallow pool.

“Our boys water polo team just finished up its season as co-champions of the Ocean League. Unfortunately, we had an early exit from the playoffs, but I was really proud of what we accomplished. The girls season just started and it will probably be a bit of a rebuilding year. Swim season is a long way off, but I think we have a solid group coming back. We'll have to see how things develop.” 

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