40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#85 and 86: Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex

original pool, diving tower, and Hall of FameLocation: Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida

Configuration: 2 50-meter pools, one set up long course with 10 lanes, the other short course (25) yards with 20 lanes

Fee: $5 nonresident day pass

Fort Lauderdale is where I crossed the line from recreational pool user to addict. It took multiple exposures for the addiction to set in, and now the responsible pools are endangered, a troublesome development for this junkie.

My first visit here was inauspicious. It was January 1993, and my college team drove down in a van from Connecticut, leaving behind our new 50-meter indoor pool to cram workouts into a single lane alongside dozens of other northeastern teams. We stayed somewhere inland, equally crowded, and had to jog to and from the pool complex. I don’t remember much else about the trip except toasting my 21st birthday at the Elbo Room. Driving, running, cramped swim conditions, and an infamous beach bar–not much to like there.

You know you're at swim camp when your hotel room looks like this.

You know you’re at Swim Camp when your hotel room looks like this (2007).

Fort Lauderdale redeemed itself on my second visit, in 2007, for my team’s annual Swim Camp. Wisely avoiding the crush of collegiate teams, TNYA plans its camp for early spring, when the cold in New York has gone on far too long and Florida is all but guaranteed to be warm and sunny. We took over a full pool for some workouts and joined in with the Fort Lauderdale team for others, practicing twice per day and leaving ample time for eating, socializing, and lazing on the beach. It was bliss, solidifying many friendships and setting me up for a great summer of open water. Ever since then, pretty much all I’ve wanted to do is swim outdoors.

The next year was more of the same, but with three practices a day since my addiction had festered and I was training for the Manhattan swim. Two other people on the trip were, too, and we’d have a whole pool to ourselves as the sun came up over the ocean, silhouetting the palm trees visible out front. I was so focused that I doubt I traveled more than a quarter-mile from the pool except during an ocean swim. The pool, the smoothie place, the pool, the breakfast place, the beach, the pool, the Greek place, repeat.

Since then, my schedule has unfortunately precluded a repeat trip with TNYA. One year, Piezy and I found a different camp at a different  pool that worked with our schedules, so we spent a week swimming and biking through other parts of Fort Lauderdale with some beach visits thrown in. Once again, a fantastic trip. Other years, I’ve gone farther afield in search of fixes–Walnut Creek, Panama City, Australia–but have always craved a return to the simple, swim-centric life in Fort Lauderdale.

The place that facilitated my obsession–then the Swimming Hall of Fame, now the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex–is on life support. As I write, TNYA’s Swim Camp is taking place in Miami for the first time due to constant threats of closure at Fort Lauderdale. Once again, the timing wasn’t good for me anyway, so I was extra glad to make a trip two weekends ago for my friend John’s birthday. He and I have shared many swim and bike adventures, but his job has taken him out of New York, and I was glad to have the chance to catch up.

the view from the west
With that long-winded lead-up, let me tell you about the pools. Not since Stanford had I seen so much sparkling pool water. The complex has two deep-water 50-meter lap pools perpendicular to each other with a diving pool off the end to the west (in the foreground, above). Although I’ve seen different configurations previously, the present lane setup is all east-west: short-course yards in one pool and long-course meters in the other. Visible from the whole complex, not to mention from the Intracoastal Waterway and the Las Olas Bridge, is a gigantic digital clock, perfectly synched with smaller digital clocks at strategic poolside locations. A giant set of bleachers along the north side makes clear that competitions here can draw an audience, however, the bleachers were condemned in 2011 and are blocked off.

Me and John after the big birthday swim. Are these people really in their 40s?!

Me and John after his birthday swim, looking not a day over 39.

John chose to celebrate his entry into Club 40 by swimming for four-plus hours under the blazing sun in the west pool. He churned out 40 reps of 400 long-course meters while I did a mix of 350s and 300s on the same interval. This being Florida, we each had our own lane the entire time, and when John’s sister and another friend joined us, they got their own lanes. In between reps, I was able to watch some synchro diving practice over yonder.

Approaching 50 years old, the pool has some rough patches. Its lanes are narrow by today’s standards, and there are no infinity gutters, super-high dive towers, or other now-common enhancements. As I tired, I actually hallucinated that some of the blobs of exposed concrete on the bottom were creatures swimming into my lane. (I thought I hallucinated the smell of donuts, too, but that turned out to be legit, wafting over from brunch at the restaurant next door.) I am unsure of the purpose of the weighted cones lurking underwater. John felt currents from the vents, and I’d like to be able to blame them for my occasional run-ins with the lane line, but it’s more likely that faulty technique and a propensity to circle swim were to blame.

short-course poolThe next day we returned for a less taxing swim, and I opted for the other pool for the sake of this blog. It is closer to the street and set up with an endless array of lanes the short, 25-yard way across. The water was ever so slightly cooler in that one, although it’s supposed to be the other way around. Not only did I have my own lane, but I was several lanes away from any other swimmer.

After both swims, I luxuriated in the on-deck shower and then changed in the spacious locker rooms. Though worn, the rows of lockers, sinks, and showers attest to the numbers of swimmers this place can support.

How did this pool paradise come about? Its predecessor was the 50-meter Las Olas Beach and Casino Pool, saltwater, built in 1928 a a short distance north. Soon discovered by northern swim coaches, it became such a popular training and competition destination that it is credited with (or blamed for) starting the Spring Break phenomenon. In the 1960s, that pool was demolished to make way for new development, so a new pool and swim museum were built on nearby public land/infill. The complex expanded to its current configuration in the early 1990s with the second training pool and distinctive, wave-shaped edifice added then. Originally run together as the nonprofit International Swimming Hall of Fame, the pools are now managed by the municipality while the museum remains distinct. (More on the museum in a future post, and in the meantime see its comprehensive history of the complex.)

record boardThe one-time prominence of the facility is clear–see the record board boasting the likes of Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, picture the bleachers filled with crowds, the results on display on the giant clock, the light towers keeping the action going long after dark. However, its age is apparent, too. I love that the spots in Fort Lauderdale I got to know in 2007 are almost all still alive, but the reality is that the city and southern Florida have changed tremendously since the 1960s and even since the 2000s. Yachting has become a mega business, and 50-meter pools are no longer a commodity. There is a contingent that would love to get out of the pool business and have a giant parking lot and expanded marina instead.

the clock from Las Olas Bridge

The pace clock, peeking out among the yachts, is readable from far beyond the pool.

Gloom-and-doom predictions of closure have grown stronger the past few years. Everyone agrees that new construction will be expensive, but there are gaping differences of opinion regarding what exactly should be constructed, how much it will cost, how much the city can afford, and whether the deed requires a pool on site. (Diving pool on top of parking garage, anyone?) The museum, meanwhile, has found a welcoming new home in Santa Clara, California, but its moving date remains elusive. When John and I visited, there was much anticipation of a meeting that was scheduled for the day after I left, however, I can’t seem to find any reports of the outcome.

All this to say, you should probably visit the pool soon. No matter how nice any replacement pool may be, it won’t have the authenticity of the place that made me the addict I am today.

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#84: Jones College Prep High School Pool

DSCN1599_jones_prepLocation: Printer’s Row, Chicago

Configuration: 6 lanes x 25 yards

Fee: Free as visitor with Chicago Smelts

When I collected Chicago pool recommendations, there were many great-sounding options in addition to the magnificent InterContinental. Thus, I was motivated to schedule strategically for a two-pool trip. The second choice–with thanks to former TNYA meet coach Christopher, now a Chicagoan–was a workout with my team’s Midwestern sibling, the Chicago Smelts, at the Jones College Prep High School Pool.

The pool is behind the highest windows in this new school building.

Look, up on the top floor, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a pool!

The location could not have been more convenient to my hotel, just a few short blocks away–an especially good thing when the workout starts at 5:45 a.m., less than 24 hours after my InterContinental swim. I spotted another swimmer type and followed her into the school and up the elevator to the seventh and top floor. This town gets points for building its pools up high!

Jones College Prep turns out to be one of Chicago’s top public high schools, with a new building and a pool befitting a high-performing student body. Opened at the start of the 2013 academic year, the building added capacity for this selective school. Yes, there were cost overruns, and yes the pool may be partly to blame, but that is not unusual for this type of undertaking.

The Smelts smelled opportunity with a new pool coming online and got themselves booked for regular morning workouts starting just a few weeks before my visit. Swimmers expressed happiness with the early practice options yet were surprisingly blasé about the beautiful facility. A trip or two to my team’s basement pools would add to their appreciation.

The pool? It’s got six lanes, just-right water temperature, and set-ups for all kinds of aquatics, including polo and diving. My photo does not do it justice. (Blame the not-yet-risen sun.) The locker rooms were reasonably spacious, and everything was nice and clean. Good job, Chicago!

The team was great, too. As with many USMS affiliates, visitors are welcome for a week of free workouts. A swimmer named Heidi collected my guest registration receipt on deck, steered me to the right lane, wrote the workout on the board, and proceeded to lead the lane while I hung on for dear life for the next 75 minutes. When my abs hurt the next day, it didn’t take long to realize it was from all the dolphin kicking on my back–something I’d been meaning to do more of anyway. Everyone was friendly, and I appreciated their chatter about the One Hour Swim, which I’d completed recently. Not only were Smelts members in the midst of competing, but they–again led by Heidi–were serving as “host” for the nationwide virtual competition.

After showering and bundling up, I was surprised to find students and staff streaming into the school at 7:00 a.m. New Yorkers are not such early risers, and our facilities are all but deserted at both the start and finish of our (later) morning workouts. I appreciate the Midwestern hardiness and would be happy to swim with the Smelts again and again and again if only I’d stayed in Chicago any longer.

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#83: InterContinental Chicago Pool

Location:  Magnificent Mile, Chicago

Configuration: 4 lanes of 25 yards

Cost: $27.50 including tax

If a picture is worth a thousand words, allow me to be verbose.

Photo by InterContinental Hotel.

InterContinential Pool bleachers


Prior to a recent trip to Chicago, I’d polled the Internets for a pool recommendation. The InterContinental Health Club won out, so I wandered up at dawn last Monday to check it out. Lobby staff directed me to the fitness center, where the attendant was dubious that I’d want to pay $25 plus tax for a swim. “Go take a look,” she cautioned.

Neptune fountainUm, yeah. I gladly forked over the entry fee–not much higher than I pay to swim in a crowded basement in Manhattan–for my own lane and then some in this masterpiece of pool design. Ah, Chicago prices! The ceiling, the stained-glass windows, the arches, the Spanish tile, the terra-cotta fountain, the wrought-iron light fixtures, the rattan-filled bleachers, the sun dancing across the water, the view of the Tribune Building . . . there’s not a thing I would change.

InterContinental had the same thought when restoring it in 1990, and it looks largely the same as when it opened in 1929 as the all-male Medinah Athletic Club for the Shriners. Back then, the property included golf, shooting, and archery ranges, bowling, billiards, a track, and a gymnasium. None of these athletic facilities survives save for the pool proudly on display on the 14th floor. Over the years, Johnny Weismuller, Esther Williams, and Tennessee Williams were among the luminaries who swam here.

the cold-water faucetThe pool heaven at Hansborough and understated elegance at London Terrace came to mind as I worked through my Monday Morning Pyramid* to fully test and appreciate the water and views, but this beauty far surpasses them. It was also pleasantly uncrowded despite the pre-work hour. In fact, when I got into the easternmost lane, I had the odd sensation of disturbing a cold layer on top and swimming through occasional hot and cold pockets, as if in open water. This turned out to be because cold water was gushing in from a faucet in the deep end (above right) while warm water flowed in from underwater vents–and no one was swimming there to mix it up. I moved over once a spot opened up and eventually experienced all of the lanes, which averaged in temperature in the low 80s.

Although the bottom tiling marked five lanes, the pool was wisely roped off into just four, and my split times indicated that the length is 25 yards despite the “Junior Olympic” 25-meter distance cited on the hotel website. I particularly enjoyed backstroking under the ornate ceiling and looking out the windows while using a kickboard. It was fun to imagine the bleachers packed with bespoke spectators enjoying fancy drinks while cheering on swimmers, and to wonder who might have gotten the box-seat-like precipices.

Chicago may be Second City by some standards, but for this pool I give it top billing. I hope to have the chance to enjoy it again. Next time, I’ll ask for the secret tour to learn even more and to be sure I get my money’s worth.

*The Monday Morning Pyramid is a great way to put a pool through its paces. It had been a long time since I actually did it on a Monday, as follows (after warm-up):

DSCN1576_intercontinental150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
100 free, fast
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
2 x 100 stroke or IM
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
3 x 100 pull
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
4 x 100 kick
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
3 x 100 pull
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
2 x 100 stroke or IM
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
100 free, fast
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim

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#82: Willow Valley Communities Aquatics Center

Four pool fans

Rub-a-dub-dub, four women in a tub: Janet, Mom, me, and Aunt Alice Ann.

Location: Willow Street, Pennsylvania

Configuration: 2 x 25-yard designated lap lanes, 4 more without lane lines

Cost: Free as guest of community resident

An underemployed friend and I used to quip that retirement is wasted on the old. That couldn’t be farther from the truth at Willow Valley Communities, a pair of non-profit-run retirement campuses just outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where my aunt and uncle settled in late 2013. The 2,500 “mature adults” who call this home make the most of many fine amenities at their disposal, including a Cultural Center with this Fitness and Aquatics Center.

100_2577_willow_valleyThe pool opens at 6:00 a.m. every day, sans lifeguard but with swim-buddy rule. The lap section is 4-5 feet deep, kept at a temperate 82 degrees, with a deep end off to one side that was host to a volleyball game during my visit. There’s also a warmer therapy pool where my mom and aunt took an arthritis class and a hot tub completing the square, all surrounded by a large deck and lounge.

Natural light comes in from a wall of windows along the lap side, colorful murals and flags add to the cheer, and it’s all impeccably maintained. Accessories include many toys (no pull buoys), and the locker rooms are lovely.

My aunt and uncle have made many friends in their new home, including champion swimmer Janet. She’s gearing up for the U.S. Senior Games, having already claimed a state title in the 80-84 age group. A freestyler and backstroker, Janet trains in the pool three times a week. I was thrilled when she turned up by my side the day after Christmas, because we’d thought our swims wouldn’t overlap. She and her husband chose Willow Valley partly because of its pool, and I don’t blame them. In summer 2014, Willow Valley even completed an outdoor (non-lap) pool on the other campus, just steps from my aunt’s place. What’s not to like?!

Janet attributes her health and vitality to her swimming, to which she confesses a happy addiction–something I certainly relate to. But there is plenty else to keep people active and fulfilled at Willow Valley: classes, volunteering, theater, restaurants, outings, clubs, model trains, walking paths, fishing ponds . . . the list goes on. All the people I’ve met during the course of two visits seem exceptionally satisfied with their decisions to settle here, so I’m pleased as punch that my aunt and uncle are among them–and that I can look forward to more swims at this pool.

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#81: Prospect Park YMCA Aquatics Center

Image by Levien & Company.

Location: Park Slope, Brooklyn

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Cost: Free as guest of member

Here is a happy story of depaving a parking lot to put up a paradise. The Prospect Park YMCA Aquatics Center was conceived to expand swim capacity beyond the small, 1927-vintage pool at this bustling facility. It took several years longer than expected to come to fruition but now does just that, netting the Y at least one new member.

Jen, whom I last swam with on Staten Island, is a happy new member here and reports that the new lap pool is never crowded. We visited the day after Thanksgiving and had plenty of room in both the pool and the locker rooms, making for a relaxing afternoon on what for many was a day of frenzied consumption. Indeed, I must admit relief that the patrons here did not match any Park Slopes stereotype of, say, self-righteous parents and precocious children.

Ranging in depth from 4 to 5 feet, the pool exemplifies good aquatic design and management: on-deck showers and bathrooms, pixellated wave and fish tile decorations, toys galore, and natural light from high-level windows on two sides all impressed me. The older pool remains in use, allowing this new one to be largely dedicated to lap swimmers and kept at a not-too-warm temperature.


Jen peers down into the pool from 8th Street.

The YMCA, which has been on an impressive pool-opening kick these past few years, secured enough funding in 2007 to break ground. Donors included then-councilman Bill de Blasio, who remained a devoted gym patron well into his mayoral term before finally leaving the neighborhood for Gracie Mansion. Originally predicted to open in 2008, the project took much longer than expected in typical New York fashion, finally seeing completion this past summer.

The exterior belies the high-ceilinged space inside. Cleverly, the new pool was built well below grade, with just one story poking up above ground, thereby maximizing future development possibilities and quashing the parking lot. There’s still plenty of bike parking out front by the main entrance on 9th Street, allowing the natives to arrive by the politically correct conveyance.

Jen is a regular here now, and I wish the Y would do something in my neighborhood.

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Henri Matisse’s Swimming Pool

The Swimming Pool in Matisse’s dining room at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1953. Photo: Hélène Adant. © Centre Pompidou – MnamCci – Bibliothèque Kandinsky. From MoMA website.

At Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, the exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), sublime modern art translates into pure pool joyousness. One of Matisse’s most significant and popular cut-outs, and the focus of a major art conservation effort that sparked the show, The Swimming Pool is on display for the first time in 20 years. Swim, don’t walk, to see it.

Following his surgery for cancer in 1941, the French artist and master of modern art Henri Matisse (1869-1954) turned to colorfully painted, cut paper as his primary artistic medium. Using a process he called “painting with scissors,” he cut out plant, animal, human, and abstract forms in a variety sizes, arranging them in compositions featuring vibrant color contrasts and a pared-down, decorative approach. The exhibition includes over 100 works of art and provides new insight into this important area of his art work.

The Swimming Pool (late summer 1952) was inspired by Matisse’s visit to–as noted in the exhibition’s description–a “favorite pool” in Cannes, France, where he went to study divers. According to the exhibition catalog, this appears to be the pool at the Palm Beach Hotel in Cannes, a MoMA librarian and swimming fan has helpfully determined.

Unable to endure the summer heat, he returned home and announced: “I will make my own pool.” In his dining room at the Hôtel Régina in Nice he had his assistant place a band of white paper, about 70 cm wide, at eye level, along the tan burlap walls of the room. Over the next several weeks, he cut out swimmers, divers, sea creatures, and other shapes from paper painted ultramarine blue, arranging these forms within and outside the paper’s boundaries. The diving, swimming, flipping, and turning water-colored forms against the white background create an interplay of positive and negative space making swimmer and water interchangeable. The dynamic relationships between the graceful forms cut and placed by Matisse (with the help of his assistant) evoke the essence of waterborne movement in a swimming pool on a bright summer day.

Acquired by the museum in 1975, and first displayed in 1977, the monumental, 50-foot-long work has been re-installed in a special room in the museum, allowing the viewer to experience it as the artist did in his dining room in Nice. Entering the sanctuary of The Swimming Pool and taking in the surrounding scene of bodies moving in water that plays out along the four walls is both meditative and exhilarating. The environment and the subject matter re-create in the imagination the experience of swimming in an actual pool.

When Matisse said “I will make my own pool,” he spoke for anyone who decides for him- or herself to do something creative, meaningful, or challenging. Every swimmer will relate to this, I think.

Information on timed tickets (required), admission, and museum hours are available on MoMA’s website. The exhibition runs until February 8, 2015.

Thanks to devoted reader and pool enthusiast Zoe for this contribution. –Hannah

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Swim Flick: Touch the Wall

What’s better than a holiday weekend? A holiday weekend with a new swim movie!

There are a lot of reasons to recommend the documentary Touch the Wallwhich opened today. Star Missy Franklin is a joy to watch in and out of the water. Franklin’s family and coaches are wonderfully grounded and supportive. The underwater swim footage is mesmerizing. Older teammate and training partner Kara Lynn Joyce adds a different dimension as she pursues her third Olympics. The story of two champion female athletes who are both friends and competitors is rare in popular media. The theme of loving what you do comes through loud and clear. CA, sitting on one side of me, especially appreciated the dialogue with and insights from the coaches. For Jen, on the other side, the film brought to mind the antics of her daughters.

But you come here for pools, and that is yet another reason to check out this film about the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. How many places does an aspiring Olympian train and compete? It takes four continents to answer that question.

Franklin’s suburban Denver hometown pool looks like Anypool, USA. It’s packed to the gills with age-groupers no matter the hour–they don’t get the most convenient time slots–and they love it. Her high school pool is a little nicer but certainly does not scream world champion. The pools get better when she starts competing at the highest level: training camp in Brisbane, Australia; world championships in Shanghai, China. Success in those venues leads to an intense schedule of pool tourism. Long-course beauties in Palo Alto, Charlotte, Austin, the Florida Keys, and Indianapolis are on the circuit before the Olympic Trials. My favorite? The Keys–both for the pool and the open water swims with dolphins, where the highly evolved aquatic Homo sapiens and cetaceans are at times nearly indistinguishable.

The 2012 Olympic Trials, held in a pop-up pool in Omaha, was full of pyrotechnics both literally and figuratively. From there, eastern Tennessee and Vichy, France, are the final training grounds before the Olympic competition at the London Aquatics Centre. The pools and waterslide that star in USA Swimming’s “Call Me Maybe” video–Franklin’s directorial debut–are in Vichy.

Franklin could have written her ticket to any college team or pro contract before reaching legal age. Further proving that she’s an independent thinker, she chose Cal and its workmanlike Spieker Pool for her collegiate career while many of her teammates headed to snazzy Stanford.

At 1:48, the film is longer than I generally opt for, and at moments I thought it would have been stronger with a focus on Franklin alone. But that wouldn’t have been the real story, and I ended up grateful for the dueling narratives and definitions of success.

I’d like to know more about how the filmmakers started working with Franklin when she was just 14 years old, and how the narrative arc took shape. Their website isn’t fully fleshed out, so maybe these answers are coming. In the meantime, grab your swim buddies and race to the theater for this one-week engagement.

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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.”



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