40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Not a Pool: Ohio Street Beach

outdoor lockers

Like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a bank of free lockers just steps away from the urban waterfront is the stuff that dreams are made of — but the latter actually exists at Ohio Street Beach, Streeterville, Chicago.

signage pointing the way to Ohio Street Beach

Swimmer-friendly public signage points the way to Ohio Street Beach.

A work trip took me to the Windy City in late October. I arrived in the mid-afternoon, had no work obligations until the next morning, and saw that this time slot would be the warmest of my visit, so naturally I hightailed it to the beach immediately after checking into my Magnificent Mile hotel. Could there really be lockers, like the Internet said? Indeed, they were there, almost all free to be claimed!

Back to the hotel in 12 minutes to regroup and hustle to the beach once again for a swim. By then the sun was sinking behind the skyscrapers to the west, shooting long shadows across the waterfront esplanade into Lake Michigan, making my swim that much more memorable. It’s not often that I get to swim in and out of the shade of some of the world’s tallest and most famous structures.

skyscrapers dotting the waterfront north from Ohio Street Beach

The John Hancock Center peers out over the swim course from Ohio Street Beach. This photo is from the morning two days after my swim — better light and no shadows.

All this would have been remarkable enough, but the water was lovely to boot! Swimming in such an enormous body of freshwater seemed otherworldly. In fact, something about the water reminded me of the Blue Lagoon (and it wasn’t the temperature!) — a slight opacity that nevertheless felt really clean.

The swim course is along the sea wall. Channel markers a ways off the side protect the area, and there are regular ladders up out of the water onto the Lakefront Promenade should you wish to exit. Were someone to swim this close to the shore in Manhattan, you can bet that law enforcement would be on the case in no time. Here in Chicago, no one paid me any mind except a girl staging a Barbie photo shoot on the beach.

Due to the approaching darkness, the temperature (mid-50s air and water), and dinner plans, I limited my swim to about 20 minutes. Next time I’d like to make it at least out to the breakwater about .6 miles north, but I’d been confused by what it was when seeing it from water level.

Much to my delight, the clothes I’d shoved into the locker were still warm when I reclaimed them! The remainder of my swims on this trip were in my favorite indoor pool, where I contemplated whether perhaps I should relocate. In the interim, I’ll jump at the chance to return to the City of the Big Shoulders during outdoor swim season.

No swimming sign

Swimming northeast from the beach is not allowed.

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#99: MIT Zesiger Center

MIT pool - long viewLocation: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Configuration: 12 lanes of 25 yards plus diving well; 50 meters long in total

Fee: $10 day pass with non-MIT student ID, $15 day pass without student ID

A work event brought me to Boston in late September, so I seized the opportunity to try out pool #99 for a Friday night workout with MIT Tech Masters. What a good choice this was! The MIT Zesiger Center pool turned out to be the nicest indoor facility I’ve swum in on the East Coast. Opened in 2002, it still feels and looks brand new. The temperature was perfect, underwater visibility incredible, and my times faster than usual. If there had been a hot tub on deck, I’d probably still be there.

Coach Bill welcomed me to the workout, the club’s first on a Friday night since the spring. I shared a lane with just one other swimmer and somehow ended up doing about 14 laps of butterfly and 12 of breaststroke during the workout. Ouch!

The existence of a second pool (upper right) didn’t even tempt me, this one was so nice.

MIT pool artSwimming in the shallow end had the added benefit of proximity to a multipart art installation by Matthew Ritchie. The view at left, taken from the hallway outside the pool, is not as good as the one from within. Every time I breathed facing that window, I tried to figure out if it was a giant equation or other key to the universe. MIT takes its public art seriously, with a Percent-for-Art program of which this piece is just one example.

If the pool is any indication, sports facilities are taken seriously too — even though MIT is Division III. I wish schools in New York could do the same.

 

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Hafnarfjörður, Iceland

Amanda’s summer 2017 return visit to Iceland brought her to many Westfjords pools, which you can check out in her photo essay. Herein, she tackles Reykjavík, site of some of our previous exploits. Due to the “no photography” policy posted at all of these pools, she’s listed links to the websites for the facilities, which include images. The photographs below are hers. 

After a spectacular road trip around the Westfjords, we ended our 2017 Icelandic vacation with several days in and around Reykjavík, which in turn provided opportunities to visit a few more pools. My first stop was a return to Laugardalslaug, site of the IGLA Championships in 2012 that first brought me to Iceland. Unsurprisingly on a beautiful summer day, the outdoor pools and hot pots were crowded, but I had the indoor pool essentially to myself and enjoyed a nice long-course workout. I thought that the sight guides on the ceiling were a new addition, but photographic evidence from this blog proves me wrong. Nonetheless, swimming backstroke here remains a challenge. Most importantly, we did not leave the complex without a joyous trip down the waterslide, which was just as much fun as I remembered.

We spent a few lazy days at our friends’ summer house in the village of Borg, about one hour east of Reykjavík. Borg’s swimming pool is connected to an athletic complex featuring a gym, soccer fields, basketball courts, and a playground. Our 1000kr (US$9.30) entry fee gave us access to 4x25m outdoor lanes, one designated for lap swimming, two hot pots, a kiddie pool, and a basic (especially compared to the one at Laugardalslaug) waterslide. I found this pool unremarkable except for an epic meltdown by a young girl in the locker room, complete with crying, screaming, and the slamming of bathroom doors.

spectacularly blue waterfall

The spectacularly blue Brúarfoss, found not far from Borg.

What I did find remarkable was a pool in the quaint Reykjavík suburb of Hafnarfjörður, a picturesque harbor town and the third-largest city in Iceland, with 30,000 inhabitants. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Hafnarfjörður is that it is essentially built into the lava, with its well-kept houses, yards, and streets nestled carefully among hardened lava flows.

flowers

Some landscaping among the lava flows in Hafnarfjörður.

The city of Hafnarfjörður boasts three swimming facilities. We visited one: Suðurbæjarlaug. The 1100kr (US$10.25) entry fee included towel rental, which was convenient because we had walked there from where we were staying in Garðabær. The swimming facility is edged by a beautiful dark wood-paneled building, with a 5x25m outdoor pool with marked and roped lane lines for lap swimming connected to a smaller open swimming area. This large pool is also connected to an indoor pool, separated by a wall above the water, so you could swim under the wall and into the indoor section. It must be terribly convenient on rainy or snowy winter days.

At most of the pools we visited in Iceland, if anyone was using the designated lap-swimming lane it was usually only to swim a few leisurely laps before retreating to one of the hot pots. Suðurbæjarlaug was the only pool where I saw several serious lap swimmers with caps, goggles, and “toys” like fins and kickboards. There are also starting blocks, so my guess is that this is regularly used as a competition pool. As much as I enjoyed coming across this ideal set-up for swimming proper sets, I tried to keep my workout short so as not to get in the way of the locals.

The outdoor area at Suðurbæjarlaug also featured three hot pots and a cold pot, a kiddie pool, two waterslides, a steam room, as well as gender-specific nude steam rooms. The main locker room was spacious with full-size lockers, mirrors, and hair dryers. But one of my favorite features was the open-air locker room. When it’s available, I always opt for an outdoor shower. There is something especially pleasing about showering with an open sky above you. The presence of a neighborhood swimming facility like Suðurbæjarlaug makes it easy to understand why Iceland repeatedly ranks high in happiness measures.

A lovely street in Hafnarfjörður

A lovely street in Hafnarfjörður.

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Iceland’s Westfjords Pools

Amanda and I loved exploring pools and cultural attractions in Iceland in 2012. I was thrilled when she asked about writing for the blog in advance of a return visit with her husband and two Icelandic friends last summer. As if we needed more convincing, her photo essay provides full evidence of Icelanders’ love for the pool. Stay tuned for a separate post about the pool in Hafnafjordur, outside Reykjavik, which was her favorite of the whole trip.

The (very short) list of “stuff” that we would need for our trip to the Westfjords of Iceland included this bullet point: “Swimming gear! Let’s hit every pool in every town. Goal.”

Photo of waterfall in distance behind fields

Water, water everywhere. A roadside waterfall on day one of our Westfjords road trip. Photo by César Martínez.

I was 100% on board with this plan. My first trip to Iceland in 2012 included visits to several of the pools featured among the original 40 of this blog, and I have since remained a big fan of the country and the people, due in no small part to their passionate pool culture. Since I had already volunteered to provide some guest posts for 40 Pools, I was grateful that my fellow travelers shared in my enthusiasm to visit local pools in the Westfjords.

Photo of green hills

A typical Westfjords view. Photo by César Martínez.

In fact, a pool was on the itinerary for our very first day of travel, with a planned stop at the pool where Einar’s grandmother learned to swim. Attached to the Hotel Reykjanes, this pool has two things that are remarkable: it is large (50m long and 12.5m across), and it is geothermally heated to quite a hot temperature. It was not difficult to imagine Einar’s grandmother, along with everyone else in town, splashing around in this giant “hot tub” while enjoying the spectacular views of the surrounding fjord.

Amanda underwater with bubbles

Taking a dip in the heated pool at Hotel Reykjanes. Photo by César Martínez.

Steamy fields and water

Geothermal steam rising from the grounds outside Hotel Reykjanes. Photo by César Martínez.

Spectacular views quickly became a theme as we continued to check Westfjords swimming pools off our list. I had planned to swim some laps when possible, but in many cases this proved difficult, as the pools were oddly sized and usually only had one or two lap lanes available. Not to mention that most were far too warm for a proper workout.

Sketch of pool

An example of odd pool dimensions from the public pool in Suðureyri.

The pool in Suðureyri was packed with local families on a beautiful Westfjords summer day, with plentiful sunshine and temperatures in the high 60s. It indeed seemed that the entire town was there, some splashing in the small swimming pool and others lounging in one of the three hot pots. Given the strict rules about bathing properly before swimming in Iceland, I was surprised to see the largest hot pot full of small children eating popsicles while their parents enjoyed miniature cups of coffee from a dispenser on the pool deck.

Pool view

Photo by César Martínez.

We discovered a true gem of a pool in Patreksfjörður. The complex was clearly recently built, with a 16.5m five-lane pool, complete with lane lines painted on the bottom, as well as the customary three hot pots, on a deck with truly breathtaking views of the fjord. We timed our visit to coincide with summer’s extended dusk and puzzled over the Lonely Planet’s description of the town as “unattractive.” A full gym is attached to the pool complex, with a number of trophies from regional swim competitions on display in the hallways, one of the only pools we visited that seemed to offer a competitive swim program.

Hot tub and scenery

Dusk over Patreksfjörður.

Twilight view

Dusk over Patreksfjörður. Photo by César Martínez.

Eerie black and white image

The moonscape on the drive between Bíldudalur and Tálknafjörður. Photo by César Martínez.

That said, we completed our circuit of Westfjords pools with a beautiful competition pool in Tálknafjörður, featuring five 25m lanes with painted lane lines and starting blocks. By the time we arrived at 8:00 in the evening, the shade of the setting sun was beginning to encroach on most of the facility, so we didn’t enjoy basking in the hot pots as much as we had in Patreksfjörður, but what this pool lacked in atmosphere and views it made up for with a spectacular water slide.

talknafjordur hot pots

Raudasandur beach

Iceland also has beautiful beaches. Here’s the photographer on Rauðasandur (“red sand beach”).

Snow-capped mountains in distance

On the Snaefellsnes peninsula, on the road back to Reykjavík. Photo by César Martínez.

Westfjords map

Iceland’s Westfjords

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Closed for Renovations – John Jay College Pool

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

Cheers theme song

John Jay College Pool is–or was–my pre-work happy place, where I was guaranteed to see friends, laugh, vent, continue conversations from week to week and season to season, and always be glad I came. Here we effortlessly sorted ourselves into lanes, trading the lead and adjusting intervals without need for discussion, as only long-term swim mates can do. We also traded cookies, books, gossip, even bathing suits (mostly too-small hand-me-downs to Lisa Lisa and Piezy). The community here supported each other through sporting endeavors and also, simply by being there, through career ups and downs, sickness and health, births and deaths, and other life changes.

This is not to downplay the pool’s issues: bugs on deck, the non-working suit spinner and wringer, inconsistent water and deck temperature, periods of chemical imbalance and lifeguard unreliability, pieces of the ceiling falling onto swimmers, faded lane markings, uncleanable “white” boards, menacing hair balls, malodorous locker rooms, and broken lane lines are among the things we grumbled about. Nonetheless, these were far outweighed by the convenience and luxury of having the whole pool to ourselves before work two mornings a week.

My team’s history here is as old as the pool itself, dating to 1990, and this is where I first sampled TNYA in the early 2000s. Through December, we held about 9 swim practices here weekly, along with synchro and polo sessions, taking over all five lanes each time. Thus, the long-threatened and now actual closure of John Jay as of this week is a seismic jolt.

JJ website screen shot

Much has changed in the area since 1990. The neighborhood, and Hells Kitchen to the south, have gone from dicey to high-end, the college has expanded through the rest of the block and been surrounded by Citi Bike stations, the hospital across the street has been taken over by a conglomerate, the nearby breakfast options have multiplied, a subway line going from my apartment to this part of town has opened, and the pool was overdue for refreshing. The nascent rehabilitation holds the promise of “new tile work in and around the pool, new mechanical systems including the pool chlorination system, a new ceiling and lighting and renovated locker rooms.” (Confession: I left behind a swim suit, slightly hidden, as a test to see just how thoroughly the locker room is renovated.)

TNYA’s leadership has diligently sourced other pool options, though none as convenient or capacious at the crack of dawn. The team is hoping that the work will only take a year, which is hardly a nanosecond in the CUNY-verse, but the college has quoted its swimmers a period twice as long. Either way, I already miss John Jay terribly and would return to the hairball-infested, overly chlorinated water in an instant if only I could.

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#98: Richmond Plunge

full length of pool

Location: Richmond, California

Configuration: 8 lanes of 25 yards plus shorter shallow lanes

Fee: $6 for non-residents

I thought I’d found pool heaven at Hansborough in Harlem, but it turns out that there is an even bigger, more light-filled pool paradise across the bay from San Francisco in Richmond, California. It’s the Richmond Plunge, which I visited on a sunny September Friday morning with local pool blogger Dave, who is a regular here on weekends. What a treat!

exterior with MUNICIPAL AUDITORIUM sing

If only NYC’s Riverbank State Park had been built 70 years earlier, it might be showier, like this. The tunnel to the left leads to Keller Beach.

I’ve been unable to find an exact definition of this sense of “plunge,” but it seems to imply a cavernous, indoor, public pool built in the first half of the twentieth century, for both swimming and socializing, and situated near the California coast and likely near a train, too. The Richmond Plunge, opened in this bustling port and railroad town in 1926, ticks all these boxes. In fact, I first saw the building on my last trip to California, on the way to Keller Beach.

We had to wait a while out front for the pool to open due to a late lifeguard, something all too familiar to Riverbank swimmers a few years ago. The regulars who were gathered were reminiscent of Riverbank, too–a diverse slice of local life–making me speculate that perhaps my public pool of choice would have turned out like this if only it had been built 70 years earlier.

high ceiling above pool

How about that natural light and fresh air?

Once inside, I changed in the vintage locker room and paced the deck to fully take in the marvelous structure. The lights weren’t even turned on, all the better to appreciate the beams of sunshine streaming in from the east through windows that actually open.

The north half of the pool was set up with 8 x 25-yard lanes, and it was uncrowded enough that circle swimming wasn’t necessary. There was shorter-distance lap swimming without lane lines in the other end. The water had a silky quality due to the saline treatment system that was installed during a major renovation/rebuilding earlier this decade and is touted for its environmental sensitivity.

The San Francisco Bay Trail is adding new travel and recreational options for the area, which is part of a historic district in a town that’s seen some rough times. Anchored by this exemplary public amenity, and with a number of parks, museums, and historic sites nearby, Richmond and its plunge seem to have a bright future in store. I certainly hope to be back, especially now that my count of nearby nephews has doubled.

women's locker room windows

Simple yet classy locker rooms.

mural

This mural, based on a nearby park, was added during the recent renovation.

Hannah and Dave

Thanks to Dave for facilitating this pool visit.

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Oh, What a Beautiful City!

A friend came across this gem of a video set at Hamilton Fish, a gem of a pool on the Lower East Side. I implore you to watch it and then watch it again, because it’s just as good the second time, music and all.

Years ago I saw a longer treatment of the same place, called The Pool, that explores a different day in its life (sans cell phone promo). It’s a good one too, if  you ever get a chance to see it. Differences among people from all walks of life all melt away when they are together enjoying the water.

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Cal Legends Aquatic Center


pool view through front door

My recent visit to the Bay Area did not include a swim in one of its newest pools, Cal Legends Aquatic Center. It’s unavailable to the likes of me, being reserved for the sole use of UC Berkeley’s renowned intercollegiate aquatics programs. The Golden Bears were constrained at the workmanlike Spieker pool, so a group of alumni up and bought the land for “more water,” had it built, and donated it to the college. How’s that for being true to your school?

I came by early on a Saturday morning to peer in through the fence at the year-old facility. The boxed-in setting is so similar to Spieker that I thought I might be in the wrong place, but the new diving tower is the giveaway. No more do Cal divers have to travel to Palo Alto to practice their high dives.

A group of women were nervously huddled on the highest platform, jumping one by one, so I’m convinced I was lucky enough to see varsity swimmers or fledgling recruits.

Meanwhile, Spieker and Cal’s other pools–Hearst, Golden Bear, and Strawberry Canyon–remain open to the rest of the community. Sources tell me that it may be possible to get into Legends if the other pools have to close unexpectedly, something not uncommon based on my experiences trying to swim at Cal, but in that case you get the water only and not the heated locker rooms and hot tub. (If any pool closures happen during my visits, I hereby plead the Fifth.)

As a staunch supporter of public education, I was glad to see that Cal beat the Cardinal team last year (in the Spieker pool no less). That said, I do find Stanford’s facility to be much more inspiring even than this new pool. Perhaps getting past the chain-link fence would change my mind.

pool view through the fence

Are those varsity swimmers up on the tower?

pool view through the fence

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#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. [Spring 2018 update: shampoo/conditioner dispensers have been removed.] 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.

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#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?

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