Close up of swimmer in water
The FAST (Florida Aquatics Swimming and Training) Complex rises from the Florida plain almost out of nowhere, its art deco-inspired design a monolith that practically beckons you for a closer look.

It’s a beautiful building; functional and practical without seeming static or stuffy. It’s a literal oasis, with two gigantic, heated swimming pools – one indoor and one outside – a splash pad, a fully-equipped gym, function and meeting rooms, a concession stand, and even a pro shop. This is where Ocala residents can work out, do laps, athletes train and compete, and families can bring their kids for swimming lessons and water activities year-round.

But two years ago, it didn’t exist.

The sign in front of the FAST Facility in Ocala, FL

The College of Central Florida (CF) was the training facility local teams used, and although well-loved and appreciated for nearly half a century, it was becoming outdated and cost-prohibitive to maintain.

“Basically, that’s where most of the folks in Marion County went for teaching kids to swim, or you’re on a swim team, you’re getting ready for a triathlon – it was really the only year-round facility in the county for 40-plus years,” explains Kevin Milak, Director of Business Development and Training at FAST. “So it was a real community hub.”

Over the last ten years, the college’s vision changed, and the pool became unsustainable; it was showing its age and probably would have needed a lot of money to keep it going another ten years, much less another forty. As Milak points out, pools aren’t easy or cheap to operate.

“It’s one of those things where the college didn’t have a collegiate team, and they weren’t running a lot of programming,” Milak says. “It just didn’t align with what their goals were.”

Enter Ken Colen, the Ocala businessman behind On Top of The World and Calesa Township – and a fairly visionary guy with more than just land development and building homes in mind; Colen’s interest is in creating communities.

“He really, truly takes pride in being a developer and not just this guy who buys land, builds houses, and walks away,” Milak says. “His foundational question when he starts a project is, how does this give something back to the community? It’s about the infrastructure around the project as much as the project itself. If you’re building something in the middle of nowhere, what are the things you need to build that community?”

Calesa Township is aptly named, because it’s like a little mini-city within the city of Ocala; the Tree of Life joint worship center and Ina A. Colen Academy at Calesa, and nearby Sholom Park are all Colen’s brainchildren  Colen and his team were drafting plans to build a new aquatic facility at Calesa at the same time CF had made the decision to close theirs.  As the college moved towards shutdown, the scope of what the Ocala community would need in an aquatic center changed; the Colen team realized it would need to be far larger and more comprehensive than its predecessor.

The pool at the FAST facility in Ocala, FL
It would take at least 2 years to get FAST designed, built, fitted out and ready to open, and after exploring possible municipal partnerships, Colen decided to undertake the project himself. But there was a hitch: If CF closed their pool, there would be few places for athletic teams, competitive and recreational swimmers to go. Colen paid the bill to keep it open until FAST was completed – so people in the area wouldn’t lose that integral hub they’d depended on for so long.

The FAST facility goes leaps and bounds beyond what was previously available to the community – and it was built with not just Calesa Township, but Ocala’s benefit in mind. The Olympic-size swimming pools boast enough room for several groups to use at a time, with daily scheduled lap swim and open swim times switched between the indoor and outdoor pools for people to utilize for those activities. The splash pad has proven a showstopper favorite with the kids; it’s been a particularly active area of the complex since it opened, especially during the hot season.

Milak and his team’s goal is to make FAST the hub that CF had been for so long.  Situated right next to the Academy, it’s in as convenient a location as possible for the Township residents.  Starting in January 2024, FAST will be an included amenity for the HOA members at Calesa, supplementing the other pool facility on the property. That will expand the options, offering health, fitness, and recreation opportunities for the people living there – with the goal of drawing more people from outside the Township, who can join with a variety of membership packages.

“The moral I work with is making it about the whole child, not just ‘we’re going to teach you the skills. Some programs will just throw you in whether you want it or not; we try to be more hands-on and focus on each kid’s personality and needs. We’re going to teach you the skills of how to be safe in the water – and teach you how to love it.”

— Gemma Fleming, the Director of Auxiliary Programs at FAST

Gemma Fleming, the Director of Auxiliary Programs, is a former Olympian who competed at the 2008 Games in Beijing and again in London in 2012. Now a mother of twins, she works to develop membership and member relations. As a former school counselor, she’s the ideal point person to pitch the program to area schools. She also handles the Learn To Swim program, working with kids from toddlers on up teaching water safety and swimming techniques.

“The moral I work with is making it about the whole child, not just ‘we’re going to teach you the skills,” she says. “Some programs will just throw you in whether you want it or not; we try to be  more hands-on and focus on each kid’s personality and needs. We’re going to teach you the skills of how to be safe in the water – and teach you how to love it.”

For young children – and their parents – the biggest hurdle is removing fear of the water, which is something we’ve all faced at some point or other in our lives. Water can be intimidating; it’s heavy and you can’t breathe it. It’s a simple concept, but for small children it can be a scary one. Sometimes when kids accidentally fall in, that can be a traumatic and potentially dangerous situation if they – or the adult – panics and doesn’t know what to do. Water and pool safety is one of the single most important lessons parents and kids can learn.

The pro shop at the FAST Aquatic Center in Ocala, FL
Fleming teaches parents and children to be calm and confident with the water, and if a kid falls in, Gemma’s immediate reaction is to jump in and show them how to roll.  “That way there’s no fear,” she says – and fear or panic can be deadly in the water.

The first time she saw a child fall into a pool, she pulled him out of the water and remembers the fear on both the child and the mom’s faces. The mom was obviously and understandably frightened – and instinctively, so was her kid. Teaching the skill of rolling in the water and staying calm not only removes the fear, Fleming explains – but empowers kids to be more in control of their environment.

“If you jump in and teach them that skill, it takes the fear away and shows them ‘Here, this is what you do, let’s try it again’,” she points out. “You can respect the water without being afraid of it.”

Milak agrees. “We tell parents all the time: The best thing you can show your child is that you’re comfortable and confident, and that you feel they’re in a safe place with the instructor so you can tell your child, ‘I’m gonna go back here, cross my legs and enjoy a book, and I’ll be proud of you when you get out.”

And who better to help you feel confident than a former Olympic swimmer teaching your toddler water safety and training?

A splash pad at the FAST swimming facility

Along with swimming lessons and training, FAST also has a full gym that is open to all its members, the aforementioned and wildly popular splash pad, which even Fleming’s twin children can’t get enough of – “They’re on that thing almost every week, they just love it,” she laughs – and regularly designated times for Open and Lap swims each day. Milak is also working on developing additional athletic teams to join and adding still more competitions and meets to their roster.

At the time we spoke to him, he was preparing for a swim meet with over 600 kids (!), and FAST’s calendar was rapidly filling up. Already there are 30 weekends of the year scheduled for competitions and meets, with more coming.

Not a bad feat for a guy whose first day on the job was about six weeks before they officially opened. But it wasn’t his first rodeo. Milak is an experienced Meet Director, coach, program and facilities administrator, with a vast range of experience in aquatics management and marketing. Good thing, too; when he came on board at FAST, he had to hire staff, make sure health inspections were completed, the pools cleaned, and the facility in working order – all with just a little over a month to get it done.

“It was a little crazy,” he admits. “But we have a really great team in place.”

Showcase REALTOR® Dawn Mahler in front of the FAST - Florida Aquatics Swimming & Training in Ocala, FL

Membership packages range from Daily, Monthly, and Annual options, with discounts for seniors and students and special Family rates.  Locker rentals are available on a monthly or annual basis, and the gorgeous pool cabanas are also available to snap up if you have a hankering for a day’s lounge poolside with some snacks and your Kindle.

Another option for families is FAST’s Winter Camp, slated for December 20-22.  Parents can sign their kids up to come and stay at the facility from 8-5 and enjoy activities and pool swim. It’s another way of showing what FAST has to offer while at the same time offering the community a fun, inclusive alternative to watching TV or playing on the mobile phone. FAST also offers the Camp program during Summer Break.
“It gives the kids a safe space while their parents are working, holiday shopping, running errands,” Milak says. “Or if you just want to bring your kids and hang out. It’s great for a staycation, especially for people who don’t have access to a heated pool.

“In Florida, once you cross into October, if the pool isn’t heated nobody’s getting in.” He chuckles. “We don’t have that problem here.”

If you would like to read more about businesses in our community please check out some of our previous Business Spotlights!