40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Poolside Reading: Fighting the Current

Fighting the Current coverIf you are seeking a good book to help pass the cold, dark days, or wondering about holiday gifts for your favorite swimmers, I present to you a suggestion. Lisa Bier’s Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870-1926 (MacFarland, 2011; paperback, 220 pages) gives the story behind the story of the famous swim accomplishments of the 1920s, most notably Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking, stereotype-smashing English Channel crossing.

My knowledge of open water swim history has progressed in reverse order. When I took to the Hudson in the early 2000s, I knew that I was part of a wave of swimmers enjoying less-toxic waters thanks to the Clean Water Act. A swim buddy lent me Diana Nyad’s Other Shores, and from that I learned about training sans goggles and the 1970s marathon swim scene. Like Nyad, I was unaware of her forebears. A trio of new works published during my own marathon swim heyday enlightened me: Tim Dahlberg’s America’s Girl, Glenn Stout’s Young Woman and the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Gavin Mortimer’s The Great Swim. All paint a rich picture of the 1920s and its leading swimmers, particularly the women. Reading these, you realize how sidelined our sport has become.

Like all great historical movements and figures, Ederle and the 1920s swim craze did not emerge from a vacuum. Bier’s book fills in the backstory. Our great city, I learned, was at the forefront of men’s and women’s swimming for more than 50 years, both in the pool and in open water. Bath houses, floating baths, and Ys (both Christian and Jewish) are all part of the story, evolving along with the fashions and “swim costumes” of the times. New Yorkers were swimming under the Brooklyn Bridge, down the Hudson, through Hell Gate, and off Staten Island in droves during the early 20th century, charting courses we are rediscovering today. Organizations supported first water safety and then competition, building an audience and a field for the eventual Olympic debut of women’s swimming.

Bier presents a trove of stories and photos that bring to life the camaraderie, rivalries, and intrepidness of this bygone era. We owe these pioneering swimmers–and her–our admiration and gratitude. We’ve come a long way, and yet we still have plenty to learn from looking back.

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NYC Swim’s Last Summer

Me jumping off ferry boat in New York Harbor.

2006 Governors Island Swim plunge. Photo by David Nager.

At the start of this season, open water swim organization NYC Swim announced that this would be its last full summer of events. The announcement–which I helped write–is decidedly mixed for me, being one of its biggest fans and busiest workers.

I’ve swum and kayaked in every single event these past several years, and I love them all. The swimmer’s view of our great city is unique and eye-opening; it’s given me an education in topics ranging from tidal cycles to combined sewer overflows to women’s sports history. Open water training has also lent new purpose to days spent at the beach, leading to deep friendships with those who luxuriate in the same. I’ve come into contact with like-minded people from all over the world, and I’ve tackled challenges that I never even knew existed. The fact that I’ve swum around Manhattan still makes me smile almost every time I cross a bridge off the island. I truly can’t imagine what my life would be like without NYC Swim.

Just another chilly day at the beach. Photo by Richard Peterson.

As our water gets cleaner, more and more people awaken to the possibilities of our archipelago city. Ruminations about swimming to, or around, various islands in our vicinity are now commonplace. Some of the people I’m lucky to call my friends have pioneered not just new swim courses and records, but marathon-swim safety gear, training techniques, culinary creations, and community-building tools.

My work with NYC Swim also helped me identify professional strengths, leading to a search for more fulfilling full-time work. This transition that took years but recently paid off.

Meanwhile, a lot of thankless work is involved. I’m on the front end–the tip of the iceberg–helping swimmers and volunteers get registered and to the right place at the right time. Qualification requirements, event-day logistics, and Monday morning quarterbacking are some of the areas for which I’ve responded to far too many e-mails to count. As swimming in New York Harbor becomes less of a novelty, the overall level of appreciation goes down. People join us to check off an item on their bucket list rather than to enjoy the experience in and of itself, ignorant of the variables inherent and the fact that sometimes, Mother Nature wins.

The increasing popularity of the waterfront also adds to the challenges for event organizers. Areas that once felt like our own private domains are now so full of life that we can no longer squeeze in. Restaurants, kayak clubs, bike paths, ferry docks, parks, and beaches all compete for the waterfront, both physically and bureaucratically. Storms roll through without regard to our plans and our facilities.

Just like everything in New York, costs are on the rise, and somehow our ranks of volunteers have not been replenished with youngsters. The lack of economic reward and growing time commitment take their toll–and if I feel this way after “only” eight years, I am sure it is even more acute for those who have been involved longer.

Plans for future seasons still remain to be decided. I’m not convinced this is really the last summer, but I’m relieved that for those of us who are most entrenched, our separate conclusions are the same–we need a break. Most of all, I’m grateful to have been along for the ride. Even when I’m off-duty, I’ll be in the water.


#80: Lyons Pool

Parks Dept. photo of Lyons

Photo by NYC Parks & Recreation

Location: Tompkinsville, Staten Island

Configuration: 3 x 33 1/3-yard courtesy lanes during my visit; 12 x 50-meter lanes during lap swim

Cost: Free

Situated alongside Hannah Street (!) a short walk from the St. George Ferry Terminal, and in eyeshot of New York Harbor, Joseph H. Lyons Pool has been a favorite since I visited for a night owl swim a while back. Years later, I finally returned on my last “summer Friday” off from work. Not only was this my 80th “new” pool since 2012–doubling my original goal–but it was the first blog-worthy dip with my longtime swim buddy Jen.

women's locker room entry with photo of pool under constructionLyons, designated a landmark in 2008, is Staten Island’s WPA gem. Like so many other favorites from Robert Moses’s building rampage that left no borough un-pooled, it opened in 1936. In addition to the main pool, it’s got a diving pool (closed) as well as a spray pool, all amid the signature brickwork and ornamental details that it shares with its WPA siblings. A tall brick smokestack emblazoned with the Parks logo makes the complex visible from a far. A historic photo posted in the grand entryway (at left) depicts the pool as it was nearing completion, giving a sense of the scope of the project.

Jen had the smart idea of visiting during regular hours (obligatory locks at the ready), where we each got a courtesy lane to ourselves. There were a good number of other patrons enjoying the water–which seemed exceptionally clear–but it was by no means crowded. Despite this, we were rushed through the locker rooms just before 7:00, because of an inexplicable prohibition against mixing open swim patrons with night owl lap swimmers.

grand entrance

Signature brickwork I’ve come to know and love.

swim lessons

A stylish swim class from yesteryear seen in the entry lobby.

The locker rooms, while spacious and colorful, were stocked with the cubby-sized micro-lockers used at so many Parks outdoor pools. If you had spent the day, say, out on your bike with a friend discovering a flock of goats and exploring your ideal beach as selected by a Parks quiz, the laws of physics would prevent you from being able to fit all your stuff into a single locker. Fortunately, the you-must-have-a-lock rule does not specify that all of your belongings be locked up together.

lyons_DSCN1389_cropBefore a beautiful return to Manhattan across the harbor at sunset, we stopped to celebrate Jen’s upcoming birthday at New York City’s first Dairy Queen, in the ferry terminal. (Yes, yes, I know that Manhattan now has its own DQ.) Beach, pool, friends, and ice cream–a perfect summer day. As Robert Moses himself put it in 1934, “It is no exaggeration to say that the health, happiness, efficiency and orderliness of a large number of the city’s residents, especially in the summer months, are tremendously affected by the presence or absence of adequate swimming and bathing facilities.”


There Goes the Neighborhood: Reebok Club Bought Out

When my comp membership at the Reebok Club expired this past spring, I promised myself that if I really, really missed it, I would splurge for a full-priced renewal. Sure, the cost might take a year or two off my retirement, but then again the repeated hot-tub soaks could add a year or two to my life.

Truth be told, I haven’t had much time to miss it. A job transition followed by outdoor pool season have preoccupied me. Still, the splurge option was nice to have in the back of my mind. Come September, when the outdoor pools go into hibernation and Riverbank shuts down for its annual, month-long cleanse, I know I’ll be wistful for a regular pool membership.

Alas, my remembrances of things past will have to suffice. I am no longer interested in rejoining thanks to last month’s announcement that Equinox Fitness is acquiring the club and its handful of siblings from Millennium Partners. Having not yet been to any Equinox facilities, I may be hasty in passing judgment, but I can’t imagine a large chain upholding the same standard of service that I found so exceptional at Reebok.

I recently learned more about what made the Reebok Club so special from my Thursday morning TNYA coach Brad, whom Reebok hired in the spring as a substitute water aerobics instructor. Even as a substitute teacher, he went through Reebok’s extensive orientation program, learning the corporate culture as well as how things work. Cleverly, this was accomplished by giving him a list of questions on topics such as how many towels get washed each day. He would speak with the chief towel washer to get the answer, and then that person would steer him to whomever could help with the next question. Each staffer he spoke with genuinely loved his or her job and was eager to share the ins and outs.

I really appreciated that, too. People working there always greeted me with enthusiasm, took the time to learn a bit about me, and took ownership of helping me and answering questions, regardless of whether the question pertained to their specific function. “Let me show you,” is something I heard a lot. The happiness rubbed off on the members, who rarely tussled over pool etiquette or let complaints dominate the locker room chit-chat as at so many other gyms. (Asphalt Green, I’m looking at you.)

So why haven’t I given Equinox the time of day when they have three 25-yard pools in Manhattan? I don’t think they want me there. Most of my impression of Equinox comes from its ads, which reflect a snobby, image-obsessed sensibility that is not what I’m after. Unfortunately, it is fairly widespread in New York–and now it is spreading even wider.

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#79: Marcus Garvey Park Pool

Marcus Garvey PoolLocation: Harlem, Manhattan

Configuration: 8 50-meter marked lanes (no lane lines)

Fee: Free

The Pool Tourism Club convened on a warm, humid evening last week for a visit to Marcus Garvey Park Pool‘s night owl session. The pool and locker room had definitely been well used during the day, so we weren’t seeing the facility at its best, but it was still enjoyable. Evening is the only option for lap swimming, since this pool has no early bird session.

This park–formerly Mount Morris Park–is so central to Harlem that it sits smack in the middle of Fifth Avenue, interrupting the street grid for a few blocks south of 125th Street, the main drag. The pool is nicely perched atop a small rise, so the view was twilight settling across tree tops and apartment windows. Sound effects included the hip-hop Romeo n Juliet performance from the adjacent amphitheater.

Janet, Lisa Lisa, Piezy, and AmandaWhile not nearly as crowded as some other lap swim venues, there were far more than 8 people, and yet the concept of circle swimming with more than one to a black line seemed foreign, and people narrowly avoided collision in the cloudy water time and again. Janet, Amanda, Piezy, Lisa Lisa, and I staked our claim to a “lane” near the far end of the pool. Even as we stopped to chat between laps of twirly breaststroke and corkscrew, people mostly got the message that it was ours. As we were leaving, however, we were both complimented for looking like a flock of wild sea birds and chastised for swimming as a “pack.” How better to insert five people into a busy pool is beyond me.

Aside from the views, the most interesting thing about swimming here is the whirlpool effect part-way down the lane. I’d experienced it more severely in the past in another lane, but it was still quite noticeable here. Basically, there is one point in the pool where–try as you might–it’s impossible to hold your line due to the force of the water coming in. Between that and the lack of clarity, it was good open water training.


#78: Lewisboro Town Pool

the long viewLocation: South Salem, New York

Configuration: 6 25-yard lanes for lap swimming; also option for 6 50-meter lanes

Fee: Oops, was I supposed to pay?

Had I known about the Lewisboro Town Pool during the two summers I lived nearby, it would have been my hangout. Somehow I only learned about it now, half a lifetime later, and it’s still a delightful discovery.

DSCN1359_lewisboroUnlike New York City outdoor pools, which embrace all lined-swimsuit-wearing, lock-carrying masses yearning to swim free, Westchester County keeps a tight grip on who gets in. At least that’s what they’d like you to think. My dad, a Lewisboro resident, was confident about our chances, but I was prepared for the worst after reading the fee and ID requirements in the local paper. I needn’t have worried. We took the road less traveled on the way in and unwittingly bypassed the entry gate entirely. It wasn’t until we were leaving that we figured out the error of our ways, and we chose not to set the score straight this time. Dad hadn’t even swum, after all, and I didn’t want to risk being denied entry after already swimming!

me, Larry, BillThe 25-yard end of the pool was dedicated to lap swimming, and the etiquette seemed to be each to his own. Seeing my shadow ripple across the pool bottom through the clear water reminded me of the Panama City Beach Aquatic Center, which also has the luxury of space.

My swim buddies–in their own lanes–were my dad’s friend Larry (standing at right) and his friend Bill (in the water), both of whom are regulars. Other patrons on this Friday afternoon included day campers and off-duty lifeguards. Little kids splashed in the play pool, and fearless divers practiced from the high dive in a pool of their own. Dad cheered us on from the side and happily joined me for après-swim ice cream.

Meanwhile, neighbors are coveting the pool. New Canaan, a nearby Connecticut town that even Westchester people describe as extremely wealthy, is in search of pool space during its YMCA pool renovations. The Y has offered to at least temporarily winterize the Lewisboro pool–by installing a heated bubble and upgrading the open-air locker rooms–in order to have the pool at its behest. According to poolside gossip, the project is out to bid and may well happen, in which case Lewisboro could end up coveting its own pool. After the New Canaanites return across the border, Lewisboro would have to decide what to keep. Here’s hoping the bubble still has a way in for scofflaws!

Larry, me, and dad

Larry, me, and dad with the dive pool behind us.

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#77: Astoria Park Pool

Miriam, Janet, HannahLocation: Astoria, Queens, New York

Configuration: 9 50-meter lanes for lap swimming in 50- x 100-meter pool

Fee: Free

At long last, outdoor lap season is here! It’s made for a busy week, with a thwarted attempt to swim at Red Hook on the Fourth, some good workouts at my newly adopted home pool of Thomas Jefferson Park, a social swim with the hordes at Lasker, and a Friday pool tourism outing across the river to Astoria Park Pool. Miriam and Janet met me there on this beautiful summer morning for early bird lap swim.

DSCN1322_astoria loooong pool

This is one of the closer outdoor pools to my apartment as the crow flies, but as the cyclist travels it involves two bridge crossings with a dip onto Randalls Island Park in between. The journey is perfect for contemplating master pool builder Robert Moses’s empire, which was headquartered in his Randalls Island hideaway. Astoria Park Pool was one of his glories, and the RFK Triborough Bridge (upper left) another. In fact, they opened within days of each other in 1936. I caught glimpses of the cool, blue pool water poking through the trees as I made my way across the span to Queens.

I arrived just in time for the 7:00 a.m. start, checking in alongside the tattooed, pool-crazed masses. Although the pool is 100 meters long, the lap lanes are squished into the south end of the pool. Is black paint so hard to come by? I grumbled to myself through some crowded laps. Later, I realized that the rest of the pool rises so shallow as to preclude lap swimming.

Despite the volume of swimmers, everything was orderly, and people self-sorted based on pace and fondness for aqua-jogging. Everyone was friendly, and I was impressed with the number of speedsters gliding through the deliciously cool water.

The park is situated between the Triborough and the majestic, magenta Hell Gate Bridge. While you can get great pictures of these landmarks from various vantage points on deck, the view isn’t quite as good from in the water. Still, it’s about as close as we can get to confusion with the lovely North Sydney Olympic Pool, which is nestled underneath the Hell Gate-inspired Sydney Harbour Bridge.

entryway and SWIM posterAstoria Park Pool is one of the city’s WPA treasures, and it still feels very in tact to me. Beautiful brickwork and massive locker rooms with layouts from another era, such that you can almost picture the swimsuit-rental stand, are some of the highlights. A giant WPA swim poster–at once progressive and racially charged–adorns the north interior tower for good measure.

The pool’s opening event was none other than the 1936 women’s Olympic Trials, which selected swimmers and divers to represent the United States in Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin. The Trials returned to Astoria with both men and women in 1964. Competitive pool standards have changed considerably since then.

diving well

The diving well hasn’t seen divers in some time, but the 32-foot, triple-tiered platform remains thanks to landmark status. A 2012 plan to convert it to a performance space has not yet been actualized, and the bottom of the diving well now hosts a small meadow.

former Olympic torchTwo Olympic torches, since repurposed as fountains but dormant during my visit, serve as further reminders of Astoria’s Olympic glory.

My first trip to Astoria Pool was in 2006, not for swimming or its historic merit, but rather to see the plumbing. A Parks & Rec pool filtration expert opened up the innards for infrastructure geeks during Open House New York weekend in October. I wish I remembered more from the tour, but about all I can tell you is that the pump rooms are enormous and the entire volume of water circulates through many times a day.

The plumbing excitement this time around came in the form of a busted shower in the women’s locker room. Because there were male plumbers working on the fix, Janet and I could not access the locker room after our swim. We milled around and commiserated with some other female lap swimmers, procrastinating using the shower-free “family locker room.” When the kids’ swim lessons ended, the throng of mothers and children overwhelmed the attendant who had been diligently shooing everyone away. The repair was called off and we got to shower and change.

It was a different plumbing problem that prevented my Red Hook swim the previous Friday. Something to do with the pool’s circulation needed attention, and after an hour of waiting for a repair that may or may not have been in progress, we gave up. The effort to keep these behemoths going certainly is impressive, and I’m glad the City had the wherewithal to get them started in 1936 and keep them going (more or less) up until today.

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#76: Hopkins School Pool

Amanda and me at the Hopkins poolLocation: New Haven, Connecticut

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free as visitor to Hopkins Masters Swim Team

In addition to the California trip during my time off in May, I took the opportunity to visit friends and cats in New Haven. Amanda had long been lobbying for me to join her for a masters swim there, and I was glad to finally do so, even if it was more of a hot cocoa kind of day than you’d expect after Memorial Day.

She used to do morning workouts at a certain Ivy League college but decamped for an even older school: Hopkins, home of the Hilltoppers. Founded in 1660, Hopkins moved to its current location atop a hill on the west side of town in the 1920s. Students here follow a traditional curriculum including the study of Latin. My friend Karen is an alumna, and she said the smell of chlorine at a recent reunion instantly evoked her school days.

Amanda’s first dip there was last November. “The pool is beautiful, water temperature is perfect, the coach was lovely, and the workout was challenging without being impossible,” she reported. All of this proved true. The evening masters workout with Coach Bob was nicely tailored to the various goals of the small, friendly group. We used three lanes, and the Hopkins girls’ team zipped around in the other three. The pool somehow reminded me of my own school training grounds: Poughkeepsie Middle School. Perhaps it was the shape of the room, the position of the bleachers, or the corner door to the outside.

pace clockThe real curiosity, though, was the clock. As Amanda described, “the coolest thing (I thought) was that they program the entire workout, including rest, into the digital clock, so you don’t ever have to keep track of where you are on the intervals. The clock tells you which set and repetition you’re on, so you just leave at the appropriate time.” My photo does not do it justice.

I have never seen such a thing and didn’t fully grasp it. As Coach Bob said, it’s idiot proof but not fool proof. You still have to know the number of repetitions and the interval for your set. If, say, you’re in lane 2 doing 6 x 100s on 1:30, you’ll use the second row of the clock. The rep number displays in the second column, and the time ticks away to the right of that. When the clock shows 1:30, you take off, the time switches back to 0:00, and the rep changes to 3. It requires the coach to plan ahead–even the rest between sets is preprogrammed–but that groundwork means that swimmers do not have to calculate intervals.

Little did we know that my swim was especially well timed. Soon after my visit, Amanda up and got herself a job in New York that starts next week. She’ll really miss Coach Bob and the hilltop pool, but she’s glad to be returning to the Big Apple after an eight-year exile. Carpe piscinam, as the Hilltoppers might say.

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Officially Summer

lap swim 30th birthday cakeIt’s swim time! New York City’s outdoor pools open tomorrow, and the weather couldn’t be more cooperative. Expect tens of thousands of cool, happy people drip-drying throughout the boroughs all weekend.

We lap swimmers have to wait until Monday, July 7, for our early bird and night owl programs to begin, but you may be able to get in some laps in pools with designated areas such as Red Hook or Sunset Park. Just be sure to know and follow the rules, lest you be denied entry to pool paradise for lacking a lock or liner.

I took this opportunity to register for adult lap swim at a bunch of pools to give myself added motivation for pool tourism. Registration is instantaneous and free if a bit cumbersome. Should you wish to register for six pools, for example, you will have to type in your name twelve times. It’s worth it. Be sure to check the box for award eligibility so that you can earn an invitation to the annual awards dinner, which is a veritable poolapalooza.

me in a giant empty pool“New” pools I hope to hit this season include WPA gems Astoria Park Pool in Queens and Lyons Pool in Staten Island. My usual summer routine of mornings at John Jay Park has to change due to a new job location and schedule, so I may become more of a regular in Central Park’s Lasker Pool or East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park Pool.

Here for good measure, are a few more possibilities to whet your appetite: Jackie Robinson, Asser Levy, and Hamilton Fish in Manhattan and the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park and of course lake Crotona Park Pool (pictured at left).

Even before it’s begun, pool season is passing too quickly, so get out there and enjoy immediately.


Not a Pool: AquaTech Alameda

breath holdingMy handsome and brilliant nephew recently added to his list of accomplishments by getting me and his mother in free to a pool! Two days shy of hitting the six-month mark, he squeaked in for a free infant swim session with his two adult buddies at AquaTech Swim School in Alameda.

While it’s true this pool is 25 yards, it’s kept at 88 degrees, making it “not a pool” in my book. However, it was perfect for the pod of infants who showed up at mid-day last Wednesday.

Little O. enjoyed being tugged around atop a large, duck-shaped float, using his limbs to splash as much as possible, and making eyes at the scantily clad babies sharing pool time with him. He didn’t fuss at all until the swim ended and he had to be stripped of his swim diaper and bathing suit. His coordination and strength have improved markedly in the short time since his last swim, and once again he made his aunt very proud.


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