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Audio-rich stories from around Bloomington-Normal, recorded during the summer of 2023. New episodes every Friday on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

O’Neil Aquatics Center makes a splash with Memorial Day weekend opening

It’s been more than two decades since O’Neil Pool in west Bloomington was determined to have outlived its operational capacity. It’s been another three years since construction on the revitalized pool and park now known as the O’Neil Aquatics Center began, but the site is finally opening to the public.

Starting Saturday, community members could dip their toes into the new pool and, soon, the splash pad — just in time for summer.

Featuring the city’s first public lazy river and the only 3-meter diving board, the west Bloomington aquatics center, at 1515 W. Chestnut St., is expected to make a big splash in the community.

“This pool is more than just a place to swim,” Bloomington City Manager Jeff Jurgens said at a Friday ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It's a symbol of our resilience, our commitment to bring quality amenities to all parts of our community, and another example of our city's very important commitment to quality of place.”

The project cost $13.8 million, with funding coming from a variety of sources, including the city and outside donors such as State Farm. Passes for the pool area went on sale at the beginning of the month, and there’s also a splash pad that will soon open to the public — at no cost. [It’s already accessible, but the water has yet to be turned on at the time of this story’s publication.]

The O'Neil splash pad is the fourth in Bloomington-Normal.

“They're [going to be] on daily, which is just a great feature for people that want to, you know, cool off or have a picnic… and just let the kids run around,” said Thom Rakestraw, marketing manager for the City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department.

For pass holders, there are two pools: a competitive pool for laps and swim lessons, and a play pool with the lazy river and a zero-depth zone. In addition to the lazy river and the 3-meter diving board, there’s a 30-foot tall water slide and interactives, like buckets that “rain water” into the pool.

Accessibility important

YMCA is sponsoring a program to make season passes more affordable to low-income families.

Rakestraw said making the aquatics center accessible, both financially and physically is important to the city.

Within the lazy river pool, there are benches with lifts and a zero-depth zone for low-water level play, which Rakestraw said are both options for people who can’t use steps.

“There’s zero accessibility issues,” he said.

The O’Neil Aquatics Center also can be a place to hang out, Rakestraw said. There’s a concession stand — the only one in the community to serve a full menu — serving people both inside and outside the pool area. Rakestraw said he expects people attending baseball games at the park to eat there, too.

“We want to be good neighbors with our neighborhood here and also other users of the park,” he said.

Patio seating, pool chairs and charging ports provide further comfort to guests within the pool zone.

Rakestraw called the park “legendary,” adding there’s still plans to continue improving it in years to come. He pointed out that there’s room to add at least two more water slides.

“There's room for growth,” Rakestraw said.

A group of season pass holders got to dive in Friday afternoon before the public opening on Saturday.

Karli Johnson and her son were among the first non-staff to experience the pool, with Miles estimating having already used the high dive 23 times after an hour and a half in the pool.

"It's really fun," he said.

Karli Johnson said the high dive was the item she was most excited to see in the pool — and not just because it quickly became her son's favorite part.

"That was something that was really important to us to have in the community because that was a staple of the original O'Neil Pool," she said, adding she's "looking forward to seeing the talent of the local neighborhood come and... show off on the high dive."

Perhaps most likely to show off is the Bloomington Parks & Recreation Dolphins Swim Team that is making the O'Neil Aquatics Center's competitive pool its new home. The team will compete there and offer swim lessons.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.