40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#97: Sacred Heart Thornburgh Aquatics Center

empty pool

Location: Yorkville, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Fee: School affiliates or seasonal members only

There are a lot of directions this post could go: a story of parking lot turned paradise, a local neighborhood feel-good piece, a test of journalism ethics. The story I’ll focus on is that of girls’ athletics: Not once in 96 pool visits in the past five years had I been in a space designed for and dedicated to girls and young women–until now. It hit me when I looked up at the record board, an experience that proved unexpectedly moving. There was just the one set of records–no boys’ marks here–and Lia Neal‘s name was all over it.

record board

Neal attended Sacred Heart and trained at Asphalt Green while successfully shooting for her first Olympics. This Athletic and Wellness Center was a fund-raiser’s dream at the time, opening in 2014, a year after Neal graduated and left for Stanford. The commitment to supporting all aspects of girls’ growth and development is apparent everywhere, and it got me to wondering when all-female grade schools started having such impressive athletic facilities. Certainly it must be in the post-Title IX era that shares my age. Even the firm that designed this is woman-led.

lockers

Upper-level lockers so high I could barely reach.

The pool was pristine, deck space versatile, locker rooms nicely appointed and stocked well enough to rival my previous new pool, sans towels. Despite being all but empty for the morning adult swim session–a wonderful experience for yours truly a week before outdoor pools opened–it is actually quite fully programmed by the school and other local institutions (Asphalt Green and the 92nd Street Y farm out classes here), photo shoots, rental groups, and more. At 82 degrees, a bit warm for my taste, the temperature is suitable for the many youth programs and students of all grade levels, for whom swimming is mandatory. The school’s varsity team has been crowned league champion repeatedly since getting its own pool.

Of course, Convent of the Sacred Heart has the resources for this and more. A 135-year-old Catholic girls’ school based in a mansion on Fifth Avenue, it counts Lady Gaga and a gaggle of Kennedys among its famous alumni. Its swim team competes in a rarefied league including other prestigious single-sex schools, and it has by far the nicest pool of any Manhattan private, ahem, independent, school.

The rest of us can swim there only through aquatics programs such as the “masters swim club,” aka reserved pool times for the 22-and-up set with a coach on deck some of the time. The coach was waylaid the morning I was there, as were seemingly all but two of the swimmers. In the fall, membership in this program may switch from seasonal to monthly, making it more enticing and flexible.

What of the other themes that struck me? The site used to be a parking garage; it’s a mere three short blocks from my apartment; and if you’re an aquatics director wondering if you should invite me to your pool for some free publicity, the answer is yes.

mural

Following in Lia Neal’s wake is Nicole Aarts ’16, depicted in this mural near the building entrance.

1 Comment »

#96: Asphalt Green Battery Park City

photo: deep end of pool as seen from behind training pool

Location: Battery Park City, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Usual fee: $35 drop-in

Asphalt Green’s Battery Park City outpost was a long time coming. The Battery Park City Authority awarded the contract back in 2006, choosing Asphalt Green’s more expensive but more lucrative proposal over that from the YMCA of Greater New York. A target opening date of 2011 was set.

photo: entrance on North End Avenue

Entrance on North End Avenue.

BPCA leadership changed, the contract negotiation was revisited, and it looked like a 2012 opening was possible . . . and then along came Sandy. The superstorm hit hard in Lower Manhattan, and this facility was one of many casualties. Subsequent repairs and politicking added more than another year to the project, which finally opened in June 2013. Battery Park TV has the complete blow-by-blow for those interested in a lesson in civics and real estate.

After all those delays, it took me another few years to finally check out the pool. My lack of enthusiasm for the Upper East Side location and the existence of an identically configured but far more affordable Stuyvesant Community Center pool two blocks away are partly to blame. Luckily, a swim meet this past Sunday evening provided an easy, social, cheaper-than-drop-in opportunity to visit this pool.

photo: windows on west side of pool

Check out all the windows in this below-grade pool. Here’s the west view looking toward the World Financial Center and through the also well-fenestrated machine room. The upper-level windows on the east side (above me as I took this picture) allow passersby on North End Avenue to gaze in.

My assessment? While it probably would have been better for the community at large if a Y had opened here, it’s better for swimmers to have another Asphalt Green-run pool. It’s just your basic six-lane, 25-yard rectangle, but the water was deliciously cool even on this very hot afternoon with the sun streaming in and dozens of swimmers churning up the water and hanging out on deck. (One complaint: no chairs.) The staff and volunteers handled the meet operations very efficiently, and the adjacent movable-bottom, warm-water pool keep the members’ little kids happy.

photo: starting blocksBest of all were the starting blocks, a feature I don’t usually review. These had large, very gently sloped platforms, a great no-slip surface, and a step on the side for ease of ascent. The backstroke holds were nice and high, too. All in all, I’m convinced these represented the latest and greatest in block design.

Unlike at the uptown location, the locker rooms do not differentiate between members and guests, meaning that there are towels, shampoo, conditioner, and other well-stocked product dispensers for all comers. You should have heard the squeals of delight in the women’s locker room as the swimmers discovered this abundance.

blurry photo: Janet and Hannah

Pool pals. Photo by TNYA member Stan.

The “pentathlon” meet, consisting of five back-to-back sprint events, was quite a departure from my long-distance comfort zone. Fortunately, Janet joined me on the heels of her recent competition in Miami in both pool and synchro events, and there were a couple other TNYA members participating as well. Looking at the heat sheets, Janet and I learned that we were both the only entrants in our respective age groups, so any thoughts of just doing the warm-up and then ducking out were replaced by the idea of “winning” all five events.

I swam them all–50s of each stroke and then a 100 individual medley–and was pleased to beat my seed times in three of the events. The fact that I missed two reassured me that I wasn’t sandbagging. The atmosphere was low-key and welcoming, and there were more than a few novices giving it a go. There was also some seriously good swimming for those paying attention. All and all, a great little event courtesy of AGUA Masters and meet director Jack Fabian.

I can’t say what it would be like during regular lap swimming here, and $35 is steep for a 25-yard box, but the light is great, the lanes are wide, and the water’s cool–and that’s a lot more than you often get at New York City pools. Plus, did I mention the free conditioner?

1 Comment »

Piscine Blomet a Paris

Lisa Lisa’s European vacation was not limited to Munich. Ever the diligent pool tourist, she also traveled to Paris and filed the following report. (To all other pool tourists and would-be correspondents out there, yes, 40 Pools welcomes guest entries from you, too!)

long view of the pool

Photo courtesy of TNYA member Ed, who also visited Paris recently.

Location: Rue Blomet, Paris, France (15th Arrondissement)

Configuration: Five 50-meter lanes, subject to rearrangement

Fee: €3, approximately $3.20

According to the New York Times, Paris has 38 municipal pools, but I only managed to visit one during my whirlwind trip to France. However, what I lost in quantity I made up for in quality.

After saying auf Wiedersehen to the Olympia Schwimmhalle, I took a side trip to visit TNYA mates John and Mingwei, who are halfway through a three-year Paris posting. And whenever/wherever TNYAs get together, there is swimming to be had.

sign: Paris Piscines BlometOn my first day in France, Mingwei and I walked over to their local pool, the Piscine Blomet. (John claimed to have to work. However; given the number of times I have seen them in the pool together, I still hold that the boys are only in possession of one suit between them.)

The Piscine Blomet is trés magnifique, a five-lane, 50-meter Parisian beauty. Entry is obtained for a mere €3, with another €1 required for changing room deposit. (Note to self: I owe Mingwei €1.) The locker room, as in Germany, is co-ed.

France’s national motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité is nowhere more evident than in this pool. With one lane set aside for the local team, and another strangely formatted into two 25-meter halves (see top image, left), the remaining three lanes were available to anyone, regardless of speed or ability. My lane-mates included a grand-mère, two débutants, one backstroker inorganisé, and that aggressive triathlete guy you find in every pool. Mingwei opted for the 25-meter area, knowing it was less populated.

Getting by anyone was accomplished via passing, turning, swimming over, swimming under, or any combination thereof. This was common, and expected. The traditional foot-touch signal must have lost meaning in translation, as this rendered no response at all.

As someone who is usually the slowest in the lane, I did experience un petit frisson in passing so many fellow swimmers. However, this quickly wore off, and I debated the option of joining Mingwei in the 25-meter area. I’ve followed him in the lane for years, after all, and can attest that it is a comfortable place to be. But before I could make the move to the familiar territory, the gendarme blew the whistle and we were required to clear the pool.

Mingwei promised croissants for breakfast, and so begins a typical day in Paris. C’est la vie!

Leave a comment »

Throwback Thursday: Olympia Schwimmhalle

Inspired by posts covering the pools from the Sydney and Montreal Olympic Games, pool tourism comrade Lisa Lisa petitioned for a guest spot to cover her favorite competition venue, the Olympia Schwimmhalle in Munich. I was more than happy to oblige! I love the architecture of this place, which I’ve only seen from a bus window–and from knockoffs like Vassar College’s pool. Her post exemplifies one of my favorite themes, namely, what lasting memories pools make. Future guest entries welcome!

snow-covered SchwimmhalleLocation: Olympiapark, Munich, West Germany (in 1985)/Germany (in 2016)

Configuration: 9-lane 50-meter pool, with separate platform and springboard diving area

Fee: see below

Germany has hosted the Olympic Games twice, in Berlin in 1936 and Munich in 1972, and neither the XI nor the XX Olympiad was without incident. The 1936 Olympics were the first to be televised, and the leader at the time manipulated the media to promote his government and ideals of racial supremacy. (Sounds familiar? No comment.) In an effort to counteract this negativity, the 1972 Olympics strove toward an ideal of openness and freedom, unfortunately leaving the athletes’ village open to a terrorist attack. This was also televised. The world watched it all, and I was no exception.

As a gymnast, swimmer (see pool #13), and Fräulein, I was obsessed by these Olympic Games, and the competition at Munich was tremendous. Gymnast Olga Korbut was the darling of the games (at age 17; practically geriatric). Mark Spitz went on a medal-winning streak that was not topped until 2008. The East Germans won everything–and later got busted for it. And I inaugurated a fantasy of swimming in an indoor venue that wasn’t dark, cold, or dingy.

Munich Schwimmhalle front doorMy fantasy was fulfilled in 1985, when my sister and I made a pilgrimage to the Olympia Schwimmhalle while I was participating in a junior year abroad. Munich is a city that has truly Munich Schwimmhalle price listmade use of its Olympic venue, and many local masters’ teams are lucky enough to call the Schwimmhalle their home. Visitors are welcome, and my sister–also a member of the esteemed Sandpiper Swim Team (and now a bona fide pool tourist)–and I were excited to check it out. My picture is blurry (likewise my memory), but as a college student on a budget, I can’t imagine we paid more than 10 Deutschmarks some 30 years ago.

I can say with certainty that at the time, it was the most spectacular pool in which I had ever swum. It snowed the day we arrived, covering the “sails” of the venue with a light dusting and providing a picture-perfect Bavarian image (upper right).

The pool itself had more than 3 lanes, a rarity in our world, and to be able to swim and see the light of day concomitantly was a feat previously unheard of.Olympia Schwimmhalle interior

hair dryer at perfect height for author

Editor’s note: A hair dryer that is the right height for Lisa Lisa may be low for many of us.

sisters in the locker room

Pool tourists investigate the co-ed locker rooms, 1985 style.

The hair dryers were at the perfect height, something I have been unable to find anywhere else. And what’s that guy doing in the women’s locker room? As it turned out, the locker room was co-ed, with patrons paying a deposit for a private changing cubby in a large hall, open to anyone.

Finally, the Olympic gods/German engineers ensured that the water temperature was perfect, the lockers pristine, and the pool Band-aid and hairball free. Yes, 1985 was a very good year.

But so was 2016–for pool tourism, at least. Remember when I said the Olympic Schwimmhalle was the most spectacular pool in which I have even swum? Well, it still is, and I know for sure because I recently popped over to the Schwimmhalle for a repeat visit.Olympia Schwimmhalle today

sign in 2016two photos from 2016: hair dryers and locker roomNot much has changed since 1985. (Well, they did get a new sign, at right.) The pool was as clean and beautiful as I remembered. The grounds were immaculate and accessible. The locker rooms were still co-ed. The painted lane lines were as dark and clear as the days when Mark Spitz stroked over them. The hair dryers remained at the perfect height, albeit more modern.

One thing that changed is the price, since Germany bid auf Wiedersehen to the Deutschmark in 1999. The current price, €3.20, is the equivalent to $3.50.

In keeping with my travel trend, I look forward to returning to the Olympia Schwimmhalle in another 31 years.

Leave a comment »

#94 and #95: Olympic Training and Competition Pools, Centre Sportif, Montreal

Competition pool

Location: Olympic Park, Montreal

Configuration: Two 50-meter pools, one with 5 lanes (the training pool) and one configured with oodles of 25-meter lanes across (the competition pool)

Fee: CA$6.50 plus tax, or a bit under US$5

Many of my fellow Americans are clamoring for information about Canada, and 40 Pools is here to assure you that there is good pool swimming to be had in our friendly neighbor to the north.

How do I know? I visited Montreal last month over the U.S. Columbus Day weekend and swam in the pool complex from the 1976 Olympic Games, now the Centre Sportif. Through researching the schedule I realized that my trip encompassed a national holiday, Action de Grâces–aka Canadian Thanksgiving. This tidbit provided helpful focus to the holiday weekend, and I timed my visit to swim in two pools for the price of one.

The swim competition at the XXI Olympiad benefited from a number of now-standard pool innovations, including an extra lane on either side of the 8 lanes of competition and turbulence-damping gutters to ensure the smoothest swim experience possible. While gymnast Nadia Comaneci was racking up the perfect 10s and the former Bruce Jenner broke his own decathlon records to become the “world’s greatest athlete,” the East German and American women duked things out in the pool. The U.S. women’s only gold came in a dramatic upset in the 4×100 relay [video]. (Host Canada took bronze behind the East Germans.)

Montreal Tower by the Centre Sportif

Montreal Tower by the Centre Sportif

I was very excited to take in these waters, my second Olympic pool experience. (The first was in Sydney.) Though the weather was dreary, anticipation built as we wandered through the Olympic complex, the first to have its swim hall connected to the Olympic stadium.

My swim started in the training pool, which paralleled the competition pool in a side room. It lacked the bright, inspirational feel of the main pool but had some nice touches such as its tiles and cutaways in the ceiling to reveal the underside of the bleachers. Although I was more rapide than most of the patrons, I placed myself among the moyen, where there was better lane etiquette.

training pool

Training pool

I got in a nice warm-up before this pool closed and we all shuffled over to the main event, the fully renovated competition pool. It’s looking and running great at 40! Cool temperature, crystal-clear water, a nice wall surface, skylights, motivational decor, a view of warm-ups for a diving competition, and my very own lane added up to a perfect swim experience.

25-meter lanes across the competition pool.

25-meter lanes across the competition pool

Banners tout the laurels of the aquatic facilities: 7 pools, more than 9 millions liters of water, and more than 40,000 dives and 1,000 water polo matches per year. With lap lanes open more than 80 hours per week, this is the place to be for Québécois swimmers.

After my swim, we watched a bit more diving–up to 10 meters! We didn’t make it to the exhibit of 40th anniversary Olympic exhibit due to rain and other sightseeing plans. Imagining the excitement was easy enough.

diving pool

Plongeons!

Leave a comment »

#93: Community Center at Stuyvesant High School Pool

corner view of poolLocation: Battery Park City, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Fee: $15 drop-in

The elite public Stuyvesant High School moved to this location in 1992, not long before I moved to New York. It was criticized for its $150 million price tag–the highest to date for a city school–but I can assure you that none of this expense or subsequent maintenance funding was directed toward the pool locker rooms, which appear to have been installed intact from an earlier era. I’d hoped to take a picture to show you but was thwarted by the woman sitting naked on the bench scraping dead skin off her feet onto the floor. Ew.

Barcelona Olympics pace clock

Further proof of low maintenance expenditures: a pace clock with the 1992 Olympics logo.

Lisa Lisa and I visited this pool–new to both of us–two Fridays ago. We needed some fresh water due to the recent end of outdoor lap swimming in the city pools and Riverbank‘s annual post-Labor Day closure. (Its reopening, which is perhaps tied to the sighting of the new moon, has been rumored to be set for tomorrow.) Regardless, for anyone in search of a no-hassle pool for occasional use, this is a great option. In fact, if you live Downtown and like to swim in the evening, this is the perfect place. Annual membership is just $199 or less for youth, seniors, Battery Park City residents, and military personnel.

Although located within the high school, the Community Center at Stuyvesant High School is run by Battery Park City Parks. Lockers aside, they do a nice job: the water was clean, the temperature pleasant. The only thing I didn’t like was slippery metal at the walls. Some lanes were devoted to coached activity, so lap swimmers squeezed into the others with a bit of disgruntlement. (Yes, we did see another fellow Riverbank regular.) I’d hoped to arrive before sunset but missed out by a few minutes and couldn’t determine the orientation. I’d like to imagine that the water sparkles during daylight hours.

record board

None-too-shabby school records.

Posters around the pool evidenced much school spirit and a bit of confusion. Are the sports teams Penguins, Pirates, or Peglegs? Whatever their name, their records are much faster than my high school team’s.

When told that I was heading to a pool in his neighborhood, a coworker first guessed at two others: Borough of Manhattan Community College or Asphalt Green Battery Park City. Yes, it’s a bit shameful that my pool tourism has so neglected this neighborhood. On the other hand, it’s good to have more options.

locker room entry

Don’t let this sleek, clean entryway fool you. The lockers are a time capsule from decades gone by.

Leave a comment »

Pool Power

sign: pool open until Sept. 11Attention, attention: Report to your nearest outdoor pool immediately. The Parks Department extended the outdoor pool season by a week–until Sunday, September 11–at all the big pools! Designated lap swim sessions ended last week, but many pools are empty enough for unimpeded laps during the regular hours. Enjoy!

As you soak in the ambiance, here is some food for thought. It is back-to-school season, after all.

  1. In Iceland, there are pool anthropologists who travel across the country to study pools for academic purposes. Many of their beautiful selections overlap with my own, but I clearly need to make a return trip–and consider a career change.
  2. In Australia, pools are so important to the national culture that they are the basis of the country’s Venice Architecture Biennale pavilion. Another return trip and career change possibility.
  3. It’s not just architects who are inspired by pools. Check out these artist-designed pool experiences. LA is now on my travel list as well.
Leave a comment »

SPF16: NYC Pools and Beaches in Contemporary Photography

Suddenly it’s summer! Beaches are open. Outdoor pools open next Wednesday, June 29. Outdoor lap swimming starts the following Tuesday, July 5. Even Olympic Trials are about to begin.

Just in time for the season comes a Parks-produced exhibit of photos taken at local public pools and beaches. SPF16: NYC Pools and Beaches in Contemporary Photography is on view, free as the pools and beaches themselves, until August 26 in the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park. Hours are inconvenient for workin’ folk, though: 9:00-5:00 Monday-Friday only.

Do yourself a favor and make the effort to visit the show. This teaser of images courtesy of Slate is fantastic but does not do it justice. The dozen artists included have wonderfully diverse subject matter, formats, and compositions, reflecting the vibrant diversity of the city’s aquatic culture. “Contemporary” in this context stretches back to 1983 South Beach, Staten Island (Christine Osinski), and up to 2014 helicopter views of Brooklyn’s Coney Island and McCarren Park Pool (Tobias Hutzler).

My favorites include Juliana Beasley’s colorful prints of everyday people of a certain age going about their business by the beach in Queens (easily mistaken for my beloved Brighton Beach) and Wayne Lawrence’s large close-up of a man looking resolutely into the camera while holding two equally steadfast girls (his daughters?) in the water at Orchard Beach. Each artist’s approach is different, and taken together their work embodies the multifaceted beauty and endless inspiration these public facilities offer. My only complaint is that it’s not lots bigger.

exhibit postcard with Tobias Hutzler view of McCarren Park Pool

2 Comments »

Not a Pool: Keller Beach

Beach view toward San Rafael

DSCN2284_keller_beachI sometimes wonder whether I’m a mutant type of vampire who is enlivened by outdoor swimming. Nothing makes me feel more vital than time in the water under the bright sun. A trip to California last month provided a good dose, mostly in Temescal Pool, as each day grew increasingly sunny and warm–while the Northeast was socked in by a polar vortex. On President’s Day, the pool was closed, so we took a family trip to the beach I’d learned about from a local friend.

Point Richmond’s tiny Keller Beach is nestled into a cove of San Francisco Bay surrounded by hills at the north end of Miller Knox Regional Shoreline. Attractions include soft sand, amazing views, sea creatures, plus amenities like bathrooms and showers. No wonder the East Bay Open Water Swim group makes its home here. A Google Group helps them coordinate group swim times, and I hopped on the list in anticipation of my visit, asking hopefully for a late-morning holiday swim. A swimmer named Fred took the lead, figuring out the best time and destination given the tides.

DSCN2305

Gratuitous nephew photo–too cute to resist.

My nephew’s schedule favored an early arrival, and we had a nice time playing in the mucky sand and admiring the views of the Golden Gate straight ahead, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the north, and various islands. The open water group convened in the late morning and casually suited up for a swim south along a railroad pier to Ferry Point. If you peeked around the end, about a mile out, you could see the Bay Bridge. A cormorant out there greeted me by chirping and then diving under, as if making sure I was enjoying the water.

DSCN2309_keller_beach

You want views? How about Angel Island and the Golden Gate!

I most certainly was! Conditions were flat as a pancake, with water temperate in the high 50s and the air about 20 degrees warmer. I could see my arms pushing through the deep green bay and the bright buoys of fellow swimmers all around. Apparently the buoys faded from view on the shore, causing my young nephew to become concerned, but then we swam back into range.

Many of the swimmers are also regulars at Aquatic Park and other Bay Area venues, but they have a special fondness for this little treasure. Now I do, too.

Leave a comment »

Not Exactly a Pool: U.S. Winter Swimming 2016 National Championships Venue

 

Too wimpy for winter swimming myself, I asked the ever-intrepid Janet to blog about this intriguing temporary pool-ish setup in the Hudson off Manhattan. The write-up is hers, the pictures mine. I admit to a bit of jealousy of the swimmers on this beautiful sunny day but contented myself with my own memories of swimming nearby during warmer conditions.

Hudson not-quite-a-pool, with George Washington Bridge in backgroundLocation: Hudson River at Dyckman Street, Upper Manhattan, by La Marina restaurant

Configuration: 2 x 25m lanes with boat ramp entry

Fee: Varied with number of events entered

On January 30, the United States Winter Swimming Association staged its 2016 National Championships in the Hudson River. “Winter Swimming” in this context doesn’t just mean swimming in the winter. It’s distinct sport, popular in northern Europe and growing worldwide, in which set distances are contested in near-freezing water in outdoor settings.

The International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) is to the sport what FINA is to pool swimming. As a safety measure it limits the distances raced in specific temperature ranges (200 meters max for water under 2 degrees Celsius, as the Hudson was on this day). It also sanctions a full schedule of winter swimming competitions around the world. Several of the Hudson River competitors and organizers had just come from an event in China, and others were headed on to England, Sweden, and Latvia before the World Championship in Russia. (For any North American readers interested in trying out winter swimming closer to home, there’s also a competition in Vermont coming up in March!)

Over the past couple of years, I have followed the adventures of friends who travel far and wide for these events, and was always fascinated by the various venues. Many are held in frozen lakes, with a 25-meter-by-2-lane rectangle carefully cut out of ice and a lane-line strung down the middle. Sometimes platforms or walls are built at each end of this rectangle, so that swimmers have something to push off of on starts and turns. (The pool in this excellent video, taken at last year’s championships in Vermont and featuring our local legend Capri, gives a good idea of that style of outdoor pool and conveys the appeal of the sport). In these ice pools, ladders provide a means for entering and exiting the water. There are no dive starts in winter swimming, for the sake of swimmers and of everyone nearby.

Cutting a pool in the ice was not possible in the Hudson—the brackish water was not frozen, and even if by some fluke it had been, strong currents would have made swimming very far out from its banks dangerous. Instead, the organizers devised an ingenious way to have a measured course, near the shoreline where the currents were negligible, with a boat ramp used to safely enter and exit the water. The result, installed near the docks of upper Manhattan restaurant La Marina, looked like a very short open-water course: two lanes, a yellow start buoy, and orange turn-around buoys at 12.5 and 25 meters. At the beginning of the day, the river temp was measured at 34.3 degrees, and there was still some snow on the ground from the previous weekend’s record-breaking blizzard.

Janet finishing

Janet (left) finishing one of her many competitions.

For each race, two swimmers entered the water, one per lane. We waded down the boat ramp to the yellow buoy, which ranged from waist high to armpit height as the water level changed with the tidal cycle. For the 25-meter races, we swam to the first orange buoy, touched it, turned around, then swam back to finish with a touch of the yellow buoy. Races of 50 meters and longer used the far orange buoy as the turnaround point, making the course similar to a short-course-meters pool, albeit one without walls to push off or a black line to follow.

Sighting could be an important skill—the lanes were wide enough that several swimmers, including yours truly, found themselves in unexpected places due to currents or just plain crooked swimming. Occasional waves from boat wakes reminded us that we were essentially swimming pool events in an open-water venue. It was pretty cool (no pun intended) the way this event merged the two disciplines.

Six events were offered—25, 50, 100, and 200 meter freestyle, plus 25 and 50 meter breaststroke—as well as a concluding 200-meter 4-person relay. Many of us swam them all, making for a busy day.

The competition was run very efficiently, with a warm staging area inside the restaurant. We were typically sent outside with about 1 or 2 minutes left until the race ahead of us finished—just time enough to make our way down to the boat ramp and take off the outer layers before wading into the cold water. Once done we parka-ed up and hustled back inside, where warm drinks and soup awaited. Plenty of volunteers—many from the wonderful Coney Island Polar Bears, which helped put on this event—kept swimmers safe and ensured that everything ran smoothly.

What was it like, swimming in water that cold? Mostly, I felt the cold intensely while wading in, but once the “Ready go!” command was given, it just felt like swimming. During the latter half of the longest race, the 200 free, I started feeling some painful tingling in my feet, and my fingertips were a bit numb by the end. In all my races, it felt really exhilarating to have been in the water, and that feeling was shared by all the participants—I’ve never seen as many red-cheeked, exuberant people.

Warming up between events was not as difficult as I worried it might be—it was great having a warm indoor refuge so near the water. The restaurant is seasonal, so we had the run of it throughout the day, and its glassed-in portions provided good viewing for the races and plenty of places to curl up in the sunshine between icy dips.

As fun as the swimming was, the other swimmers were the highlight of the day. The winter swimming community is wonderfully friendly, and as a newcomer to the sport I felt embraced and welcomed. As evening gathered and swimming races gave way to socializing and feasting, it was heartwarming to ponder the lengths we go to do the sport we love, and to be reminded once again that the water unites us all, in whatever crazy ways we choose to swim in it.

Leave a comment »