The Pawnee Plunge and Aquatic Center are essentially homes away from home for Joe Krepel. His life has been tied to Columbus pools in many ways for decades.
“It’s hard not to love pools. They’re full of life; they’re exciting,” said Krepel, the City’s aquatics coordinator.
On a June 2023 afternoon, Krepel made his way around the Plunge greeting his lifeguards and other staff members, as well as the many guests of all ages who visited the water park that day to take in the water slides, lazy river, swimming pools and more.
“I have great memories,” Krepel said, with a smile, as he looked out at the park. “And as a boss, it’s an opportunity for me to help others create those kinds of memories. Not just for the guests, but the kids who work for us. I want them all to grow up and think of this as a great memory.”
Krepel’s memories of water in Columbus date back to his childhood, as the Schuyler native grew up swimming in both communities. He can still remember one of his earliest introductions to the water, when he, his siblings and his parents would spend a day on the Platte River. All through childhood he would also go to the area pools with his friends before transitioning to becoming a lifeguard as a teenager.
“When I got to the age I could do it, it just made sense,” Krepel recalled of his summer spent at the pools in Columbus and Schuyler. “I was already going to the pool, so I thought I might as well get paid to be there.”
Krepel had aspirations to serve his country in the U.S. Navy as a rescue swimmer/diver, but a knee injury prevented that from coming to fruition. Instead, he served in the Navy from 1992-1996 as a torpedoman, a role that requires the people in it to perform organizational and intermediate-level maintenance on underwater ordnance Handle torpedoes and antisubmarine rockets.
After proudly serving his country, Krepel worked hard and obtained his degree in parks and recreation management from the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK). Earning that degree was built on the idea to blend his love for pools and youth, as Krepel had initially looked at pursuing a career in education.
Krepel continued to lifeguard in the area during the summers while in college, but upon graduation, his career took off. He led the youth center and water park in Hutchinson, Kansas, for some time before becoming the aquatics coordinator in Kearney. He later spent a year in Derby, Kansas, running a water park before going back to the aquatics center role in Kearney while also managing youth programs.
Throughout the years, his love for the water, kids and helping others have always been intertwined. Krepel has spent time as a pastor and a YMCA swim coach in addition to his more than 25 years of teaching people to swim and approximately 15 years in the aquatics industry.
Krepel rejoined the City of Columbus in an official capacity in May 2021 as the water park and maintenance technician before transitioning to his current role in 2022. It’s a job he takes a lot of pride in. But Krepel is far more than the aquatic coordinator. He’s a coach, a mentor and a leader to the dozens of teens who work for him as lifeguards or in other roles.
“My passion is kids. I love the pools, because there’s always something exciting happening. But to me, it’s about the development of the staff,” Krepel said. “For a lot of people, this is their first job. This is their first opportunity to be working. I’m their first boss, so I get to help them understand what a good boss is, how they should be treated, the importance of going to work on time and what a good work ethic means.”
That attitude is exactly why he’s the right person for the job, according to Parks and Recreation Manager Betsy Eckhardt. She said Krepel does a terrific job running the facilities and leading staff.
“I really admire Joe’s leadership,” Eckhardt said. “He’s got a lot of energy and he really is in there with the kids … He’s really boots-to-the-ground teaching skills to the kids.”
Veteran lifeguards Jailyn Jaeger, Kenzy Beiermann and Ashlee Seim all echoed that sentiment, noting Krepel is a great leader in that he likes to have fun while also knowing when it’s time to be serious and making sure everyone is focused.
“He wants you to be your best,” Beiermann said.
Those words mean a lot to Krepel, who noted he has had a lot of good staff members. As he walked around the Plunge on a recent June day, he recalled the old community pool that once stood in the nearby parking lot before the Plunge was built. And as much as he loves the water park, the Aquatic Center on the east side of town has a special place in his heart. It reminds him of his wife, Tracy, a Columbus native, who now works at the front desk there.
“She’s why it’s so important to me,” he said. “When I lifeguarded there and taught swim lessons, that’s where we met. I asked her on our first date at the Aquatic Center. So, the Aquatic Center is part of who I am. Both of these pools are. I had been waiting to come back here to help run these.”
The couple's children have all grown to love the local pools like their parents, with their three sons having worked at the Plunge at one time or another. Krepel suspects their 14-year-old daughter will be working at the Plunge next summer.
The aquatics coordinator recently was announced as the new head coach of the Columbus High School co-ed swim and dive team, a unit in which his wife and oldest son once swam on during their times as Discoverers. Krepel, who previously served as an assistant coach, said he’s appreciative of the opportunity and is hopeful he can help grow the program in time.
More importantly, Krepel said he hopes his roles with the City and CHS can help him inspire others to develop a love for the water as he did years ago.
“I want to help expand aquatics in this community and get people to continue to look at swimming as a lifetime sport,” he said, noting the various programs the City offers for swimmers of all ages and getting more teens interested in competitive swimming at CHS. “I love what I do.”
(ABOUT THE PHOTO: City Aquatics Coordinator Joe Krepel shows off the Pawnee Plunge. Krepel, who grew up in the area, is proud to lead the teams at the Plunge and Aquatics Center.)