MISSION VIEJO — Sink or swim. It's a prospect that the internationally famous Nadadores swim team has lived with for the past 18 months.
Since the team's major sponsor withdrew about $750,000 in yearly support and relinquished the team's swim stadium to the city, Nadadores parents have struggled to raise money to continue the world-class program--all the while not knowing whether they had a place to train and compete.
Now, the Nadadores may have to tread water for one more year.
A City Council majority is willing to consider spending about $250,000 to provide a team facility for the next 12 months. But that possibility drew mixed reactions from swim team parents who are pushing for a permanent city subsidy.
"I think it's a good idea to cover them for a year," Councilwoman Sharon Cody said. "It's easy to get emotionally wrapped up. What we need to do is look at some hard numbers.
"But," she added, "we have to be ready to accept the fact that we might not be able to subsidize the group."
Several other council members said in interviews that they might favor allocating public funds to accommodate the Nadadores if the city budget is stable.
Councilwoman Susan Withrow backed the idea of a one-year trial but said that if City Manager Fred Sorsabal "came back to us and said we had a $2.5-million deficit, I'd have a real problem" with holding off on deciding the issue before the fiscal year ends in June.
When the council considers the issue on April 12, officials will look at past glories brought to the city by Nadadores swimmers and divers.
Champions such as Greg Louganis, Shirley Babashoff and Brian Goodell have won 43 Olympic medals in the name of the Nadadores and Mission Viejo.
But council members say they also have to justify spending so much public money on a program that involves about 300 swimmers.
"When the swimming pool and team were corporate sponsored, that was OK," Cody said. "To ask a taxpayer to pay that kind of money on a program with 300 kids is something else."
However, Nadadores parents are only partly satisfied with possible temporary city funding.
"Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all," said Bill Kuser, a team parent who has been working on a financial presentation for the upcoming council meeting. A long delay of resolving the club's fate will hurt the swim team, making it difficult to attract new sponsors and hold onto quality coaches, he said.
In September, 1991, the Mission Viejo Co., the swim team's longtime sponsor and the main developer of Mission Viejo, announced that it was dropping its support of the Nadadores as part of a long-range plan to phase its business out of the city.
Without the benefit of a major sponsor, the team's parent support group, the Nadadores Foundation, has managed to come up with an operating budget of $450,000 from fund-raisers, swimmers' dues and hosting national swim meets--enough to pay for a reputable coaching staff and travel expenses to national swim meets.
The foundation has offered to pay another $17,000 to use the swim complex, which was built by the Mission Viejo Co. The developer traded its four recreation centers--one of which included the swim complex--to the city in exchange for some city-owned property.
Nadadores parents say Mission Viejo is dedicated to recreational programs and therefore should permanently subsidize the swim team.
Indeed, the city Parks and Recreation Department fiscal budget of $6.3 million tops the $4.8 million spent on police services. About 10,000 children and adults annually crowd athletic fields in Mission Viejo to participate in sports leagues.
"The city grew up around the idea that this is a sports-minded, family-oriented community," said Louise Murphy, president of the Nadadores Foundation. "It's part of our heritage. Nothing represents our heritage better than the Nadadores."
She pointed out that the city spends more than $1 million a year to maintain athletic fields for baseball and soccer leagues.
The swim team also contributes heavily to the local economy by hosting national swim meets, Murphy said, adding that the swimmers and their families stay in a local hotel and frequent Mission Viejo restaurants and shops during their visit.
In the past, the swim complex was used exclusively by the Nadadores. Now a public facility, the Olympic-caliber facility could be used as a center for both the Nadadores and all citywide swimming activities, she said.
"The Nadadores only use the pool about one-third of the time," Murphy said. "The public would have access for the other two-thirds."
However, city officials haven't agreed with the Nadadores on many points.
True, the city spends about $1 million on athletic field maintenance, Cody said, but "that pays for about 6,000 kids and adults."
Maybe the Nadadores only use the swim complex about a third of the time, but "those are the times before and after school and work when most other people would want to use the pool," Cody said.
Cody supports a poll to determine whether residents favor a permanent city subsidy of the team.
"We'll ask people, 'What do the Nadadores mean to you? Are you willing to subsidize the Nadadores?' " she said. "We owe it to the people to ask them how they feel about this."
Personally, "I would be ecstatic if the community wanted to keep them," Cody said. "But my wanting that isn't enough. With all the budget problems facing cities in California and what this will mean to Mission Viejo, I don't know if we can subsidize the Nadadores."