Retiring manager Tom Bryce in the window of the dive pool under Saanich Commonwealth Place. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Retiring manager lived it all in 25 years at Commonwealth Place

From the Michael Phelps fire alarm incident, to broken glass that nearly emptied the pool, Tom Bryce has 25 years of stories

The man who spent 25 years filling the region’s biggest toy box is finally taking time to play in it.

Halloween was Tom Bryce’s last day as the manager of Saanich Commonwealth Place, a role he’s filled since 1993. The memories are plentiful, such as the Michael Phelps incident in 2006, when so many cameras flashed at the start of his world-record attempt, it set off the pool’s light-sensitive fire alarm.

Or the time a mischievous swimmer cracked the underwater window in the dive tank.

As Bryce now walks away from the meetings and the management, he prides himself on SCP’s mix of community-driven use and world-class athletes. It’s what Bryce calls “the best of both worlds.”

“It took a lot of work,” Bryce said. “What I’m proud of is that it’s the users who decide how SCP is run, it’s the users who meet every month that guide decisions.”

When he showed up in September of 1993, SCP was still under construction. It was designed to handle the 1994 Commonwealth Games, but Bryce was already looking past the Games thinking, “How are we going to fill this place?”

Today SCP is a thriving recreation and high-performance centre for all ages, home to Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre – Victoria, Boardworks Diving Club, the national triathlon development centre, Island Swimming, Pacific Coast Swimming, Pacific Cycling Centre, a thriving leisure pool, a variety of Saanich recreational programming in the pool and gym, a teen centre, a daycare, complimentary health services and much more.

The building has had its ups, as it successfully hosted the Commonwealth Games swimming, diving and synchro events, it’s since held multiple national swimming and diving competitions, hosted the 2006 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships (which NBC broadcast to an estimated audience of 200 million) and is regularly used for a range of activities from underwater hockey to beginner triathlons.

And it’s had its downs. Shortly after opening in 1994, lifeguard Lorna Barr, 24, died when she was caught against a drain pipe in the wave pool. SCP was also home to the instrumental work of high-performance coaches Gord Sleivert and Randy Bennett. Both died in recent years, leaving behind their young families but also an enriched sports legacy at SCP.

“Right from the start, the community went into this thinking it would be for the community, and it is,” Bryce said. “It’s not just for the Commonwealth Games, we have 800,000 visits annually. And you look at the effect this place has on people, the life skills that both the athletes and the employees take with them.”

Despite his retirement, the 63-year-old grandfather of two young boys, three and five, has plenty to keep him busy. He’s looking to add swimming, at SCP of course, back into his exercise regime of running and weightlifting.

“When you have the [city’s] biggest toy box, you have to play in it,” Bryce said.

It’s been a big run for Bryce, who first came into the industry when he built up a high-performance swimming program in Vernon. That led him to manage a new pool and recreation centre built in Saint John, N.B., in 1983. It was during a national event in Saint John, in 1993, that Bryce connected with Victoria swim coaches who told him of a new pool, and library, planned for Saanich.

“I had a desire to bring the family back to the West Coast,” Bryce said. “After that swim meet was over I called Saanich and asked, ‘Is there a manager’s position for this new pool?’ And they said, ‘Yes, but if you want to apply [the competition] closes in three hours.’”

Bryce’s resume was ready, and he faxed it in on time. Three weeks later he flew out for an interview and got the job. Only then did the fun start.

As the story goes, Saanich had approved a new pool and library. But when UVic said it wasn’t footing the bill for a new pool facility capable of managing the Commonwealth Games, Saanich stepped up. Then mayor Murray Coell, with the help of a couple politically aligned Saanich councillors, Ida Chong and Frank Leonard, helped secure provincial and federal funding to expand the new recreation centre into a venue big enough for the Games. Saanich footed about $8 million with another $16 million from the Commonwealth Games society, a partnership fund of provincial and federal money.

The Games were a success, and so was the 2006 Pan Pacific Swimming Championship, when U.S. star Michael Phelps set three pool records that stand today.

The media gallery was so big, when Phelps leapt off the starting block for one of his races, the light-sensitive fire alarm recognized it as flames.

“And nobody noticed, there was so much cheering, you couldn’t hear the alarm. Only the people who worked here noticed,” said Bryce, who bolted at the time to manually intercept the alarm from continuing.

Then there was the child who found a piece of metal in the dive tank and, impressively, but also mischievously, used it to tap on the little-known underwater window, set about two metres below the surface.

“It cracked the outer layer of the three-pane window,” Bryce said. “We couldn’t drain it, we had an engineer come in and we ended up bolting a steel plate over the window [from the outside] to protect it, covering it for three months until the season ended.”

Charlene Parker, manager of Gordon Head Recreation Centre, will take over the SCP manager role. Steve Meikle leaves George Pearkes Recreation Centre to take the manager role at Gordon Head.

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