Some of those who find themselves in Dave Wharton’s office at the New Albany Parks and Recreation building are surprised when they see what covers his wall.
There’s a photo from his days on the swim team at the University of Southern California and another of him with President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush. A third photo explains the presidential image: Wharton at the Olympics.
Wharton’s Olympic past isn’t a secret, though. His achievements in swimming – world records in the 200 and 400 individual medleys and his Olympic silver medal in the 400 Individual Medley – are listed in his biography on the New Albany Parks & Recreation website.
Wharton took on the director position in 2001, when the organization was known by its official title, the New Albany-Plain Local Joint Parks District. The district is an independent entity formed via an agreement between New Albany, Plain Township and the New Albany-Plain Local School District, and serves residents of all three areas. The parks district rebranded itself as New Albany Parks & Recreation in 2008, but is not an official city division.
As a swimmer, Wharton didn’t have the luxury of participating in school sports until he entered high school. He’d been swimming since he was a “little tot” and began year-round participation in Philadelphia leagues around age 8 or 9, he says.
The youngest of three boys, all of whom were born with moderate to severe hearing loss, Wharton found that swimming was a good fit because he didn’t need to be able to hear his coach while he was competing. His parents were able to afford one hearing aid per son, so Wharton made do (along with speech therapy) until high school, when he qualified for state assistance and was able to get a second hearing aid.
“My coach when I was in eighth grade said, ‘You have real potential,’ and talked to my parents about sending me to a prep school for high school,” Wharton says of his transfer to Germantown Academy, which is known for its swimming program. “My first summer there, I qualified for Junior Nationals right out of the gate. It was a real eye-opener.”
Wharton’s coach, Dick Shoulberg, was training several older swimmers for the Olympics, and Wharton was dragged into practices alongside the Olympic hopefuls, performing at higher and higher levels.
“I was there in the pool with probably a dozen people who were training to go to the Olympic trials in 1984, and I just kept getting pulled into the sets,” Wharton says. “I was a young little freshman who had never been any exposed to anything like that. … They’d pull me over to lane two and I’d hope I didn’t drown.”
By the next summer, he’d won Junior Nationals and qualified for Nationals. Suddenly, the Olympics seemed within reach.
“I went from just making it to winning it,” Wharton says. “It was a big change.”
Wharton graduated high school in 1987, an Olympic training year. He arranged with his chosen college, the University of Southern California, to start in January. In August 1987, he broke his first world record in the 400 Individual Medley. That record was broken five days later by Hungarian Tamas Darnyi, who became known as Wharton’s rival. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Darnyi won the gold medal. Wharton won the silver.
“I got myself a medal, which was nice, but very hard to swallow,” Wharton says with a smile.
He stayed competitive, qualifying for several international competitions, including the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, and returned to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
“The Olympics is by far the most world-recognized event in swimming,” Wharton says. “You experience so many different cultures. The Olympic stage is definitely the big thing.”
After graduating from USC, Wharton looked for a job as a swim coach and ended up as an assistant coach at The Ohio State University, where he met his wife, Tammy. When the head swimming coach and aquatics director position at New Albany High School opened in 1997, Wharton jumped at the chance.
“I saw an opportunity to work with kids in swimming, which is what I really wanted to do,” Wharton says. By the time swimmers are competing at the college level, most of the teaching work is done, he explains. “That level is motivating, rather than working with kids who haven’t swum a lot.”
When the parks district sought a director, Wharton thought the position would be a perfect complement to his part-time role as head swim coach. Swimming takes place during the winter, which is the off-season for most Parks & Recreation programming.
In the years since, Wharton has overseen a massive expansion of the parks system, including the development of both Thompson and Bevelhymer parks. Wharton is proud of what the organization has created.
“(Residents) wanted to have places for their kids to play – safe surfaces and spaces for the kids to grow. It’s been an amazing transformation for me to be part of. It’s kind of fun,” Wharton says. “We try to protect the assets that we have. We could rent it out and run things into the ground, but we try to maintain the quality we have here at the parks.”
The number of participants in recreation programs has more than doubled since 2001, says Recreation Supervisor Brian Smith – around 4,900 participants last year, up from approximately 2,000.
“Now we’re trying to create new and different programming,” Wharton says. “It’s not just about sports. We want to provide as many opportunities for kids to be active in whatever way they’re comfortable with.”
JumpBunch, a sports and fitness program for younger children, was added to the lineup last year. Youth Rugby is another new option, as is the adult addition of cornhole, held Tuesday nights at the Rusty Bucket on Market Street. Wharton and Smith are on a team together.
Wharton hopes the New Albany health and wellness center slated to open next summer will afford space for additional indoor programming as well.
“The community’s needs and wants (for programming) have guided us,” Wharton says. “Not everything can be a home run, but if we keep trying, we’ll find those that people like and just continue to develop those.”
In his spare time, Wharton enjoys running, biking and spending time with his family. His 14-year-old daughter, Allyson, and his 12-year-old son, Austin, are members of the New Albany Aquatics Club, and Allyson has gone as far as state finals.
And Wharton himself is still swimming at age 44. In May, he took first place in his age bracket of the 200m Individual Medley at the U.S. Masters Spring National Championship in Indianapolis.
Lisa Aurand is editor of Healthy New Albany Magazine. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Albany Parks & Recreation
By the Numbers
145 acres in Bevelhymer Park
7 total tennis courts in the parks district
4 total playgrounds
4,900 participants in Parks & Recreation programming (2012)
4 full-time staff members
For more information, visit www.naparks.org.