Education

Belen’s new aquatic center a labor of love, faith and spirituality

The Gian Zumpano Aquatic Center, complete with an Olympic-size swimming pool, recently was dedicated at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in West Dade.
The Gian Zumpano Aquatic Center, complete with an Olympic-size swimming pool, recently was dedicated at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in West Dade. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Gian Zumpano’s compassion for the poor made him an unforgettable presence in the Dominican Republic, a nation he visited often.

Zumpano, the salutatorian of Belen Jesuit Preparatory School’s Class of 1986, also made an impact at his high school alma mater for many reasons, including his ability to teach his beloved sport of swimming to younger kids.

And Zumpano’s legacy of love and learning reached all the way out to the Midwest and Creighton University, where he died at 22 while sleeping in his dorm room.

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Gian Zumpano died on Sept. 2, 1990, but his memory lives on, and his family made sure of that with a 17-year effort to build an aquatic center in his name at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in West Miami-Dade. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Zumpano, who suffered from intense seizures due to a condition called gran mal epilepsy, was in graduate school at Creighton, studying to be a dentist.

“My brother touched the lives of people everywhere he went,” said Joseph Zumpano.

Gian Zumpano died Sept. 2, 1990, but his memory lives on, and his family made sure of that with a 17-year effort to build an aquatic center in his name at Belen.

That effort, delayed for some time due to campus prioritization, complex planning and construction principles, culminated last month, when the Gian Zumpano Aquatic Center – complete with an Olympic-size swimming pool – was dedicated on the Belen campus in West Miami-Dade.

Kirk Peppas, Belen’s swim coach since 1987, has fond memories of Gian, whose charitable heart exemplified the school’s “Men for Others” motto.

“He was willing to reach out to anyone to work with them on swimming,” Peppas said. “It didn’t matter to him if the kid was a superstar or someone just learning to swim.”

Gian was the oldest of five siblings, all swimmers in high school. His three brothers – Joseph, Danny and Carlos – went on to swim at Harvard University, and all three are now attorneys.

The four surviving siblings – including youngest sister Rosana – donated money and were the primary donors to building the aquatic center, which Joseph said cost “several million dollars.”

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The family of Gian Zumpano donated money to build the new aquatic center, complete with an Olympic-size swimming pool, at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in West Dade. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

At the dedication ceremony, an estimated 700 people gathered in celebration, and some came from as far away as California, Ohio, Tennessee, Nebraska and Illinois.

John Medina, the architect who completed the project nearly two decades in the making, put numerous spiritual touches into the center’s construction.

There’s a grotto facing the learning pool that includes a bust of Gian, and the names of his Class of ’86 schoolmates are inscribed on the side walls.

The inscription reads:

“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man with no feet.

“In loving memory of Gian Zumpano.”

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The Jumbotron at the new Gian Zumpano Aquatic Center at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in West Miami-Dade. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

The bust of Gian was created and donated by Michael Montag, one of his friends from his days at Creighton. The canopy over the spectators’ bleachers are blue and white in honor of Mother Teresa’s habit. And the entrance doors will have carvings of birds, which represent the Holy Spirit.

“The design of the pool was infused with the symbolism of our faith as Catholics, and that combination of spirituality and architecture has made this a holy place,” said Medina, who is part of Belen’s Class of 1977.

“In addition, it’s great that kids will learn to swim here under the guidance of God.”

Of course, none of this would have been possible if not for Gian Zumpano and the spirit he inspired in his siblings and many others.

Belen’s president, Father Guillermo Garcia-Tunon, graduated from the school one year after Gian and got to know him when they were both students there.

“He was authentically good, religious, charitable and kind,” Garcia-Tunon during the dedication ceremony. “Gian was a son of Belen, a true man for others.

“Once, when I was on a day of retreat, Gian spoke of his personal faith journey and encouraged us to strengthen our bonds with each other and with God.

“Gian captivated your attention and respect with what he said and how he lived.”

The new pool, which should be fully open by August, is great news for the Belen aquatic program, which has won seven state titles in swimming and is also a force in water polo.

It’s also a positive for many others who will use the facility, including the girls from Lourdes Academy as well as young kids from the community.

Joseph Zumpano, who led the project, is proud that his brother’s legacy will live on with something so useful to kids in the neighborhood.

But, at the dedication ceremony for the aquatic center, he put the project into perspective.

“If my brother were to join us here today, Gian would surely ask that we see beyond the concrete and steel and that we not rest on what human hands have built,” Joseph Zumpano said. “Gian would ask that we reach even higher.

“A young man of 22 passed away 28 years ago. His memory has survived time not because of any record he set or any race he swam but because of the way he loved each and every one of us.”

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