Students and neighbors worry they’ll lose the pool at Venice High School

By Julia Escobar and Gary Walker
Photos by Jason Ryan (@JasonRyanPhoto)

Venice High School athlete Zora Hollie swims in the aging campus pool, which needs extensive repairs

Shared by student athletes and city residents alike, the indoor pool at Venice High School is showing every bit of its nearly 60 years.

There’s a hole in the roof over the lifeguard tower, and when it rains there are leaks all over the building. Metal stairways into the water are roped off with bright yellow caution tape. The scoreboard is broken. At least the heater works … sometimes. And forget hosting swim meets— heavy winter rains shut out Gondolier swim and water polo players from pool access throughout most of November and December.

“I can’t tell you how many times over the past 18 years we’ve been shut out of our pool,” Sophie Sabbah says of her tenure as the school’s aquatics coach. A section of the pool remains off-limits due to roof damage, but when it comes to plans for repairs “I ask every day but I’m not told anything,” she said.

Venice High School is currently undergoing an expansive $111-million campus modernization, but the school district isn’t spending a dollar of that
on the pool.

That’s because the pool “is owned, operated and maintained by the city of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks,” an LAUSD spokesperson said. “Per a longstanding arrangement, the city is responsible for repairs and maintenance of the Venice pool. Venice High School pays the city for the use of the pool.”

Swim coach Sophie Sabbah helps students work past obstacles like unsafe railings and stairs

LAUSD board member Nick Melvoin, whose district includes Westside schools, said he’s talking to city officials about the need for pool repairs. He hopes the need for practice facilities during the 2028 Olympics could incentivize funding for a new pool in exchange for shared use of the pool and other campus athletic facilities. In the meantime, however, “It seems pretty black-and-white to me that the city is the responsible party for the pool’s repair, and it needs to get fixed urgently,” he said.

Swim program parents involved in discussions with Recreation and Parks officials say the city has budgeted for basic repairs but hope LAUSD will chip in matching funds for major improvements.

Jimmy Kim, the department’s superintendent of aquatics, oversees the pool operations and not facility maintenance, but is aware of movement on the city’s part. He says Rec & Parks officials “are currently assessing and getting estimates for repairs” to the Venice pool, “and there is some funding set aside to do renovations or even replacement with assistance from LAUSD.”

Whatever comes is likely too late for Sabbah, who plans to quit her coaching job when the current swim season ends in May. She’s coached 14 school valedictorians and Olympic swimmer Andrea Murez, but frustration over lack of consensus between the city and school district has worn
her down.

“If the pool wasn’t breaking down so often, I wouldn’t consider leaving,” she says. “This has everything to do with what what’s going on with the pool. I’ve been fighting for 18 years. It’s time to pass
the torch.”

More immediately, Sabbah worries that any repairs during the swim season will displace her program of nearly 90 students.

“It’s just a matter of time before the pool’s down and we get shut out,” she said. If that happens, “the kids are going to have to practice [in the water] on their own. I’ll still take them to swim meets, but my plan is to put them on the front lawn and air swim.”

Not being able to host swim meets or water polo matches has resulted in lots of missed classroom time for student athletes, as those events occur during school hours. Travel time for both home and away contests means missing some afternoon class time once or twice a week.

“Now that they have to be bused to every meet, my daughter won’t be able to compete in any swim meets this season because she’s already missed too much school for water polo,” parent Suzanne Dehmel said.

“It’s frustrating to miss class to go to other schools,” says Venice High School senior
Ali Diaz.

Time-consuming travel to
practice off campus is a major factor in Sabbah’s decision to step down.

“I cannot travel with the team to another pool. It’s not feasible; our bell schedule doesn’t allow it,” she said. “And when would the kids do their homework — 10 o’clock at night? When would I see my child — 10 o’clock at night? I have no choice.”

Diana Tisnado, whose daughter is on both the water polo and swim teams, tried to make up for the lack of pool access during November and December by driving student athletes to other pools.

“The breakdowns have been occurring with quite some regularity over the past several years,” she said, “and it is really so demoralizing to the water polo and swim teams to be unable to practice. Last winter we were carpooling the girls to Westwood as much as possible, but there were still woefully few practices involving actual water during the last girls’ water polo season.”

Kristin Duerr, whose son is on the water polo and swim teams, is mystified that the pool has been allowed to fall into disrepair so long even as souring real estate values are pricing families out of the area. Like many other parents, she believes the campus deserves a new pool.

“I think the building needs to be leveled and rebuilt. It’s pretty decrepit,” Duerr said. “It’s shameful that a 60-year-old facility is not being maintained properly, and the irony is that we are living in a million-dollar neighborhood.”

Jim Murez, father of Olympic swimmer Andrea Murez and a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council, laments a lack of creative thinking on the city and school district’s part. He argues it would have made sense to replace the current pool with a heated outdoor pool concurrent to LAUSD’s larger campus renovations, and hopes a sliver of the estimated $6.9-billion budget for the 2028 Olympics will help facilitate a new pool. Simply repairing the roof, he said, “only puts a Band-Aid on an old wound.”

Paola Cervantes said public access to the Venice pool after school hours helped her son, now a member of the high school swim team, learn to socialize with other children when he was young.

“His days were remarkably smoother when he was swimming. It was a real game-changer for him. The pool became his hub. He made deep and lasting friendships,” she said.

Lamenting lack of clarity surrounding the pool’s future, Cervantes said the aging facility is a vital neighborhood resource and “it is not being forgotten by the families.”

Julia Escobar is editor-in-chief of Venice High School newspaper The Oarsman; Gary Walker is a staff reporter.