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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Spokane aquatics director Carl Strong keeps the city’s pools splashy

Carl Strong, assistant Spokane Parks director and aquatics director poses for a photo on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, at the Liberty Aquatic Center in Liberty Park. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Carl Strong, assistant Spokane Parks director and aquatics director poses for a photo on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, at the Liberty Aquatic Center in Liberty Park. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Carl Strong’s father is a logger – which explains why Carl isn’t.

“When I was growing up in Potlatch, Idaho, my dad would tell me, ‘You’re not going to be a logger,’ even though he loved it. He’d say, ‘You’re going to get a degree.’ ”

After high school, Strong set off for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.

“I’d always liked making things with my hands,” he said, “and thought about becoming an engineer. But the math and science didn’t excite me.

“Then I discovered recreation and aquatics – which I’d been doing for years – was actually a career field. That was my aha moment.”

Today, Strong is Spokane Parks and Recreation’s assistant director for recreation. Besides overseeing the city’s athletic fields, he manages Spokane’s six neighborhood aquatic centers, which benefited from the $43 million bond that voters approved in 2007, the year he was hired.

During a recent interview, Strong discussed risk management, the qualities he looks for in lifeguard applicants, and what he’d like to do better.

S-R: When did you learn to swim?

Strong: My mom enrolled me in swimming class when I was 3, a week after I almost drowned. I have this image in my head – I don’t think it’s fabricated – of my grandpa reaching down and plucking me out of the water after I fell off a dock.

S-R: What were your interests growing up?

Strong: Anything outdoors. I played a lot of baseball, and spent time on the basketball court with my dad and my brother. And I was a pool rat. To get out of mowing lawns and clean out my neighbor’s horse corral, I started lifeguarding and teaching kids to swim when I was 15. I lifeguarded until I was 24, and have been in aquatics ever since.

S-R: Did you ever rescue anyone?

Strong: Nothing requiring CPR. Mostly just pulling kids to the surface because their babysitter wasn’t paying attention.

S-R: Did you swim competitively?

Strong: I turned out for swimming my sophomore year in college. I wasn’t great, but I did eventually get faster than some teammates.

S-R: Were your parents disappointed when you switched your career goal from engineering to recreation management?

Strong: They were skeptical. But recently my dad acknowledged I’ve done pretty well for myself.

S-R: What’s the best advice you got along the way?

Strong: Kevin Johnson, a former recreation professor at the University of Idaho, encouraged me to get my master’s degree. That opened up job opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have qualified for.

S-R: How has municipal aquatics evolved?

Strong: Like everything, the emphasis on risk management has increased – things like the CDC’s Model Aquatic Health Code (voluntary guidelines to make water activities healthier and safer).

S-R: How did we go from simple, rectangular pools with a diving board to water slides and other theme-park features?

Strong: After we passed the bond in ’07, we asked people what they wanted to see at their neighborhood aquatic center. Cannon users asked for a wading pool, so we combined it with the main pool. At Witter, which already had an Olympic-size competitive pool, we added a smaller recreational pool.

S-R: Has the city contemplated building an indoor facility for all-season swimming?

Strong: We considered including that in the bond, but the cost was $25 million-plus, so we dropped it. There is a group in town exploring options, including covering Witter pool.

S-R: If someone new to Spokane asked you to recommend a pool, where would you point them?

Strong: I would send them to Liberty or Hillyard. Those two have the biggest variety of amenities, and aren’t as busy as, say, Comstock, which has a lot of programming.

S-R: What’s your most hectic time of year?

Strong: Mid-May to the Fourth of July, when I work 60 hours a week – sometimes more.

S-R: How about the winter months?

Strong: Things definitely slow down, but I still work full time on capital projects, budgets, procedures that need changing. And in January we start accepting job applications for the summer. I basically run a multimillion-dollar business with 200 employees, so there’s no such thing as down time.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Strong: The people.

S-R: What do you like least?

Strong: The people.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Strong: Probably the employees I’ve chosen to promote.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in your teenage lifeguards?

Strong: People who can think for themselves, who have a strong work ethic, and are looking to improve the environment they work in – the sort of people who, if they see trash on the ground, pick it up.

S-R: How much do lifeguards earn?

Strong: $9.55 to $10.25 an hour.

S-R: What about your career has surprised you?

Strong: The politics involved in recreation – how people’s passions can have such a negative influence. When it comes to allocations of sports fields for youth groups, parents say they’re there for the kids. But the way some of them react toward other groups they see as competition – and how negatively it affects the kids – baffles me.

S-R: What’s the outlook for recreational jobs?

Strong: It’s bright. The population is aging, people are living longer and they have discretionary income. What do they want to do? Recreate.

S-R: What sort of person is best suited for recreation management?

Strong: You need to be flexible and easygoing. You have to be into people, and everything positive and negative that comes with them.

S-R: Is it still fun for you?

Strong: It is. Even with people yelling nasty things, there’s always something that makes it worthwhile – the look of joy on kids’ faces when they go down the slide or learn to swim. Our program has such a positive impact on people.

S-R: Is there anything about yourself you’d like to change?

Strong: (laugh) I’m horrible with names.

S-R: How do you relax?

Strong: Doing anything sedentarily with my hands – even crocheting. I still like making things.

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at

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