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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.)
The 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.
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.