The first time legendary Florida hotelier Harris Rosen saved a pool facility that’s become embraced by many in the Orlando area, he placed a call to Sargent Shriver. That led to a certain incoming member of the Kennedy family flexing some considerable muscle and ultimately yanking millions of dollars from a bank looking to repurpose the site. And so Arnold Schwarzenegger went from terminator to savior, allowing Rosen to assist in the YMCA taking over the site in 1992.
“Even though this facility wasn't more than a few years old, it really became a part of the fabric of Orlando,” Rosen says.
Two decades later, in 2018, the YMCA was forced to cease operating the site, a decision that “broke all of our hearts,” says Rosen, an avid swimmer himself.
So, once again, Rosen has served the role of Aquaman—saving the day. In April, Rosen Aquatic & Fitness Center opened on the same site along Orlando’s famed International Drive. Refurbished, enhanced and better than ever, the venue is scheduled to host more than 50 meets annually. Recent competitions include the prestigious National Club Swimming Association National Championships, plus the facility has been selected to host the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games next June.
"Mr. Rosen and the Rosen Aquatic Center have been such steadfast supporters of Special Olympic athletes over the years," says Joe Dzaluk, president and CEO of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. "It is an honor to host the 2022 USA Games swimming competitions in such a prestigious facility. We will welcome over 300 swimmers from 48 U.S. state programs, Aruba, Jamaica and the Bahamas. We are thrilled that they will be competing in such a special venue."
Facility director Mike Miller says what makes the center such a standout are all of the offerings. Among the highlights: RAFC has one of only seven indoor performance diving rooms in the nation and is known as one of the fastest tanks in the nation. The 10-meter dive tower and 50-meter competition pool are best in class, with the pool easily transitioning from indoor to outdoor with a first-of-its-kind hydraulic retractable roof. There is also a fitness center and trampolines and foam pits available to practice safely.
By employing the same high standards Rosen has used in his 47 years in the hotel business, the facility could very well create a new generation of stars. Pablo Morales, Janet Evans, Matt Biondi, Tom Jager, Dara Torres and others are among the notables who called the YMCA-operated facility training grounds.
Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y., Rosen dedicated most of his early recreation time to stickball. But he discovered a nearby boys club where he could learn to swim. His mother let him go if he paid his own bus fare.
“I became quite a good swimmer,” says Rosen. What he likes most about the sport is that the body rewards you swimming while it betrays you over time with other activities, like basketball or judo, two of Rosen’s other passions. He became good enough to reach the Olympic qualifiers in the modern pentathlon. While “Olympian” is a rare title Rosen can’t add to his resume, he did enjoy the experience a great deal.
“The best thing about swimming is it's a sport that'll keep you healthy and save your entire life,” says Rosen, who still swims five days per week. Not only does it keep him healthy and active, it also serves as a time to contemplate decisions.
Trying to save the pool again was an easy choice philosophically, but there were practical challenges to take into account. The pandemic brought most business to his seven hotels, including the famed Rosen Shingle Creek, to a halt. Being debt-free is what saved Rosen’s businesses, he says.
On the other hand, the longer the aquatics site sat empty, the faster it deteriorated and the price tag to fix it increased. Ultimately, he and his financial team tapped into philanthropic funds to ensure the community would once again have a place to enjoy the pool and world-class athletes would have a place to train.
“I’m insane,” he jokes when asked about investing in such a large project during a crisis.
More seriously, he adds, “I think it was a good decision. And I think the results thus far would suggest that it was probably the right decision.”