40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Rest Break: IMMERSED Exhibition

First Street Gallery show: IMMERSED

Check it out: a gallery show about pools! You can see these paintings and monotypes of pools and swimmers at the First Street Gallery in Chelsea through April 21.

The artist is Michele Liebler, a Brooklynite who is clearly an accomplished pool tourist. LaGuardia pool buddy Zoe identified the diving well in The Loss–a sentiment familiar to anyone who’s ever lamented an empty pool at the end of the summer–as being the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, for example. Other images depict lap swimmers and backyard pools.

Given my own love for pools, my favorite images are the clear renditions done in oil on canvas, rather than the more impressionistic monotypes (not shown above or on the gallery’s site). The water is almost as tempting in paint as in real life. I am not sure I appreciated the art on a higher level, such as the gallery describes, but don’t let that stop you from trying: Viewed in its entirety, these swimming pools and swimmers signify a personal experience in the paintings, although one gets the feeling of a novelist’s transmutation of personal events into fiction. 

Thanks to Zoe for alerting me to this show, and to Naomi and Kerith for meeting me there. The gallery attendants found it curious to have so many swim aficionados at once. I find it curious that there weren’t more!

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#16: Brooklyn Sports Club Pool

Patricia and Hannah in paradise

Photos: Patricia Sener (except locker, below).

Location: East New York, Brooklyn

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards plus bonus aqua exercise space

Fee: Free with seven-day trial pass

Total Fees to Date: $128.91

Space may be the final frontier for Trekkies, but it’s also something New Yorkers boldly seek out and explore right in town. In this episode, I am happy to report on a discovery of unexpected spaciousness at the Brooklyn Sports Club.

all my stuff in a locker, and still plenty of roomPlease note that this club is unrelated to the similarly named New York Sports Club, and that this airy, light-filled facility could easily fit a half-dozen of those Midtown gyms. The pool is of course my main focus, but before I could get there I was blown away by the locker room, which is fully carpeted, includes a sauna and steam room, and has aisles as wide as Manhattan streets. Behold my locker, which even when loaded with my bike panniers stocked for a day-long expedition to pool, accountant, and lunch date has plenty of extra room. Realtors would call it as a walk-in closet.

Moving on to the pool, the luxury of space continues. For example, it’s got 5 extra yards on the other side of the bulkhead, for 30 yards total, meaning that lap swim need not be compromised during exercise classes. Should you want to exercise independently of a class, there is a lane for you. Bless this pool for spelling out the distinction and providing instructions (ahem, Shorefront Y):

aqua exerciser definitionSo simple, right?

view from the deep endI found myself enjoying this lovely place thanks to an invitation from Patricia. She works as a photographer when not herding cats organizing CIBBOWS, allowing me the perfect trifecta of pool tourism: She arranged for my visit, provided a workout, and took the pictures! I am really getting spoiled. Because the pool was “crowded,” we shared a lane with each other (and no one else). The water was the perfect temperature, and nice and clear. The pool’s lining was rubbery like that of the Myrtha pool in Panama City Beach, and there was so much sun shining in to the natatorium that I almost felt like we were outdoors. That would pretty much be the case on warmer days when the doors open onto the adjacent sun deck, which beckoned with trees in full spring bloom yesterday.

Believe it or not, this pool owes its existence to the government. Brooklyn Sports Club is part of Spring Creek Towers, a 46-building complex housing more than 15,000 people, or half the population of my hometown. It was built by the federal government and opened in 1974, and you might know it as Starrett City, a former name. For their largest-ever subsidized housing project, the feds certainly did right by the pool.

cute little beach mural in the cornery The drawback for me is the long journey to get here. On my bike during rush hour, the ride took about an hour and 45 minutes. By transit, travel time from my apartment would be just a little shorter and involve two subways and a bus. It makes sense that the trip to this new dimension takes some time, but for everyday purposes, or even for another visit within my seven-day window, it is tough. Once you get here, though, as this little mural shows, you’ll be in an altered state of reality.

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Poolside Reading: Swim

Swim book coverSwim: Why We Love the Water by Lynn Sherr (Public Affairs, 2012; hardcover, 224 pages) literally dives in to the world of swimming, surfacing with a rich array of photos, illustrations, interviews, and excerpts from ancient times to the present. While presented as a narrative that flows nicely from start to finish, the book also has great utility as a reference thanks to its index, particularly for brushing up on people in the sport past and present, since they are all in here–from the swim-movie megastar Esther Williams to swimming presidents, famous coaches, and Brighton Beach buddies Capri and Alan!

The book reminded me that I still have plenty to learn about swimming, including more about legends of Greek mythology and bizarro horse-drawn huts or “bathing machines” that dropped the bather directly into the water and were popular 100 years ago in Europe. Alas, it also confirmed as myth something that I wish were true, namely, that pee in a specially protected pool turns a bright color and identifies the perpetrator.

The rich photos and illustrations help show how people have viewed swimming and swimmers through the ages and would make a great exhibit unto themselves. In a funny use of page-footer space, a breaststroker slowly makes her way from one side of the book to another, tempting the reader to crank through the pages as a flipbook.

A list of swim movies (p. 178) and a rich bibliography serve as to-do lists for further exploration.

The author, a New Yorker, has some upcoming local speaking/signing events, including the Great Hudson River Swim on May 26 and a talk at the Mid-Manhattan Library on July 25. I look forward to being part of the crowds of swim aficionados these events will attract.

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#15: Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach

Shorefront Y pool, empty at the close of the swim sessionLocation: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

Configuration: 5 lanes of 25 yards (with lane lines for just 3 of the lanes)

Fee: Free with special limited-time offer (otherwise $12)

Total Fees to Date: $128.91

If I were to liken Tuesday’s triple-dip day at Brighton Beach to the khachapuri we enjoyed out there, the time at the ocean would be the delicious, oozing cheese filling, whereas the Shorefront Y pool would be the bread: ably but unglamourously doing its job and providing a good casing for the ocean swim.

The Y was established in the late 1940s or early 1950s to serve the growing population of Eastern European Jewish immigrants settling in southern Brooklyn. Like the now-defunct Dutchess County YMCA, its focus extends beyond recreation to a broad array of cultural and social services. Unlike in Poughkeepsie, the constituents here includes many native Russian speakers, and the facility is bilingual. The entrance was particularly busy on Tuesday because the Y was a polling place in a special election that the Russian community mobilized around. Their goal was “not one Russian vote” for one of the candidates, and from the scene we encountered I can report that there were definitely a lot of Russian votes cast. The winner is still unknown, however, as the election turned out to be so close that it hinges on the hundreds of paper ballots that will be tallied next week. For now, each candidate is claiming victory and proclaiming his opponent the loser. What this meant for our visit was that we found ourselves weaving through dozens of highly focused Russian-speaking voters of a certain age just to get in the door.

The scene in the pool was not very different. Janet and I planned our visit to start with a swim during the women’s only session, which takes place on weekdays from noon to 1:30. The reason for this scheduling peculiarity and the corresponding all-male session earlier in the day, if I understand it properly, is an Orthodox Jewish belief called tzniut that males and females should not see each other let alone mix in immodest conditions such as when they are wearing bathing suits. Judiasm also places a premium on teaching children to swim, so you can see the conundrum and how logical it becomes to have gender-segregated hours.

So anyway, the pool was crowded, the women were focused, and they did not adjust their routines one iota due to our presence. For all I know, they could have been mumbling to themselves in Russian, “I didn’t survive the Holocaust, travel across the ocean, and establish a new life in Brooklyn to have to share the lane with a couple shiksas half my age and twice my speed.” Definitely not a warm, fuzzy, sisterhood-is-powerful embrace for these pool tourists.

Star of David wall markingsThe pool itself is workmanlike, with a steep slope that goes from 3 feet in the shallow end to 10 in the deep end, giving the sensation of swimming up or down hill. The bunker-like swim hall is uninspired but for the row of windows on the north and south sides, allowing views of low-rise apartments and the beach sky. The most creative design element is the pool’s wall markings–the Star of David rather than boring old Ts. I think this is a great use of real estate, similar to the roaring lion on the bottom of Columbia’s pool. Another plus was the friendly lifeguard, herself about half our age, who may be able to help us with our goal of meeting Lenny Krayzelburg and swimming in his nearby condo pool, since he has a swim academy here.

We had thought we might be able to do the beginning of a real workout during this swim session, but that wasn’t going to happen so we cut our losses and headed to the beach for some real-life crabs.

After that chilly dunk, we made a beeline for the poolside sauna, which is how I first got introduced to this Y. A few years ago when the CIBBOWS crew was smaller and more discerning in its swim season, the Y kindly let us use the locker rooms and sauna for our late fall and early spring ocean swims. After taking all the cold water we could stand, we’d run up beach and across the boardwalk to the Y (properly clad as we transited the lobby, so as not to expose our immodest selves to those whose beliefs we would violate) and sit shivering in the sauna, to the amusement of the Russians in there warming away week after week in their felt banya hats. Those were good times, and I was glad to have the experience all over again. I’m hopeful that the Iceland trip will include more of this.

Me and Janet with Lenny's banner

Paging Lenny Krayzelburg. Would Lenny Krayzelburg please report to the pool deck?

Finally, after warming up, it was co-ed time in the pool, the third scoop of our triple dip. The situation looked unpromising at first, with as many people and as many different impressions of swimming as during the women’s session. However, the middle lane cleared out pretty quickly, and gradually the rest of the pool did too. By the time the session ended, it was just us taking half the pool each with the friendly lifeguard watching over.

The last thing I want to mention is the locker room, which though not particularly small is uniquely poorly laid out, such that the crowding in the locker area makes it nearly impossible to put on or take off a bathing suit, let alone pack or unpack a giant backpack filled with cold water paraphernalia. I’ve often thought that my teammates and I should hire ourselves out as locker room consultants, to help correct the many bad design decisions that so often go into what should be a highly functional space.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not (except about the locker rooms). Like the bread for the khachapuri, I wouldn’t seek out the pool by itself, but I certainly appreciate how it enhances what’s nearby.

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Not a Pool: Brighton Beach

Brighton Beach in October 2011 with one of the season's only snowfalls. Thanks to Capri for the photo and for diligently chronicling all beach activities.

Brighton Beach cures everything. Just an hour-plus subway ride or 14-mile bike ride from my apartment, in other ways it is a world away. Janet and I made a pilgrimage today to welcome the arrival of spring with an ambitious triple-dip swim program, the pool components of which I’ll post later in the week.

The beach was pretty overcast most of the time we were on it, although the sun shone warmly just a block away, so here’s a photo from the fall showing our little CIBBOWS crew meeting up for a swim. The abbreviation stands for Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers, which is correct but leaves out mention of our other main activities–eating and lounging. At this time of year, I like to change the name to CIBBCOWS, with the second c standing for “cold.” I haven’t been out to the beach since New Year’s Day, but there are dedicated folks who show up every weekend, and one person swam the full 5K loop out there last Saturday in water just 46 degrees! Come warmer weather, the numbers swell and people laze and graze on the beach all day, possibly taking breaks for some actual swimming. It’s a wonderful escape from whatever else is going on in life.

The neighborhood’s largely Russian population really appreciates the beach, too. They fill the boardwalk year round, and it’s not unusual to see other swimmers or dippers in the water, as we did today.

Busily fishing seagulls clued us in that the crab population was larger than the human population this afternoon. My goggles fogged enough that I wasn’t particularly bothered by the presence of sea life as I did a brief round-trip swim to the famed “white building” at the eastern end of the beach, visible in the distance in the photo above. That building and the pier at the opposite end of the beach are the two landmarks of our loop course. Poor Janet had better visibility to the crabs and consequently didn’t enjoy her swim very much. (She claims to have screamed when she saw a particularly large underwater gathering of crustaceans, but I didn’t hear that from the beach.) I’m not sure what kind of crabs they were–maybe spider crabs?–but they were brown with a rounded body a few inches in diameter (not flat like some kinds), and most of their legs were considerably longer but lacking big claws, meaning they looked kind of gangly and measured more than a foot overall. The seagulls seemed to find them quite delicious, and easy prey.

Just as the wildlife varies, so does the water. Today was flat as can be, without a noticeable current in either direction, and the tide was really far out. My main triumph was entering the water quickly as practice for the 250-meter open water swim race in the North Atlantic that will be part of my Iceland trip.

khachapuri picnic on the B train

When visiting this neighborhood, I often go food shopping to take advantage of the low prices and great produce. Alas, none of my purchases made it home today. Getting off the subway, I stopped at a storefront food stand for a tasty, filling, $1.25 картофель, pronounced katorshka, a soft baked dough filled with mashed potatoes. At the end of the day, we walked a few extra blocks to pick up a Georgian delight known as khachapuri, also a soft baked dough but filled with cheese rather than potatoes. I brought some fig spread for this, and we enjoyed a subway picnic.

Back home in Manhattan, I always find myself thoroughly exhausted by the trip and the chilly swim. Just unpacking my bag takes a supreme effort–not least because of how much stuff is required for a triple-dip day–and results in a scattering of sand that will bring back Brighton Beach memories for days to come.

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Swimmers Circle Interview

Thanks to fellow USMS swimmer and pool tourist Patrick from Arizona for taking an interest in the 40 Pools Project! Take a look at Swimmers Circle for his interview about the project. Patrick is working on his own quest to swim in as many pools from Olympic Games as possible, so perhaps our paths will cross in Sydney one day.

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#14: Manhattan Plaza Health Club Pool

Manhattan Plaza pool atriumLocation: Hell’s Kitchen, New York

Configuration: 4 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Fitness Passbook pass (otherwise $35, or $25 with coupon)

Total Fees to Date: $128.91

If I could magically find myself living next to any Manhattan pool, with complimentary lifetime membership, Manhattan Plaza Health Club is the one I would choose. It’s lovely as a pool, with good temperature control, properly adjusted chemicals, amply wide lanes, and plenty of dedicated hours for lap swimmers, but the poolside amenities, colorful clientele, and “no attitude” atmosphere are what make it really special.

Topping the list of amenities is the solarium-like setting. The pool is on the third and top floor of the health club tucked into this legendary Midtown apartment complex. Thanks to its domed glass ceiling and retractable roof, you can readily tell that you are in the heart of the metropolis. The Empire State Building is often in view, though not today due to overcast conditions, along with more nearby towers such as the two comprising Manhattan Plaza itself.

Laura and Hannah lounging

Testing out pools is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

The designers planned well, leaving plenty of room for lounge chairs, greenery, and hot tubs, making this a destination for more than just a swim. There’s a shower on deck in case you forgot to rinse off before coming up, shallow and deep nooks in the pool so that classes and stationery workouts don’t interfere with lap space, and a pair of toilets immediately down the stairs inside the locker room so you don’t have to trudge through the whole locker room to empty your bladder. These people knew what they were doing! The only detail missing is backstroke flags.

A complex of nearly 1,700 apartments, Manhattan Plaza opened in June 1977, a summer that challenged New York with an ongoing fiscal crisis, a major blackout, and a serial killer, among other problems. The neighborhood was on the rebound when I moved to town in the early 1990s, no doubt partly due to the thousands of actors and artists who call the towers home. It was here that Larry David lived across the hall from the “real Kramer,” inspiring the Seinfeld series. Andrea McArdle, who is a legend to women of my generation as the original Annie, is another well-known tenant.

I was feeling a bit grumpy and under the weather when I arrived, and just setting foot on the pool deck changed all that. The shallow-end nook was packed with people of a certain age enjoying a lively water aerobics class led by an instructor who must work in the performing arts. Her soundtrack included jazzed-up versions of hits from The Sound of Music, and her enthusiasm was highly contagious; I was sorry when the class ended and may have to schedule my next visit in order to try it for myself.

My swim buddy today was Laura, who I first met years ago but got to know better since last summer, when we both began sabbaticals from unsatisfying job situations. She and I swim in the same outdoor pool each July and August, and she went in with me on the group purchase of 2012 Fitness Passbooks so we could do some indoor pool-hopping together. Our visit here lasted a few hours today, as we rotated among pool, hot tub, and lounge chairs–perfect practice for my upcoming four-day swim meet in Reykjavik, where geothermal pools and hot tubs are said to be quite abundant. (I hope to get in more training for these conditions soon!)

Laura and I enjoyed people-watching and chatting with the lifeguard and some other swimmers. (Alas, we missed Anderson Cooper’s visit.) With the exception of two people who had a loud altercation in the lane by the wall, everyone was in good spirits and quite friendly. Both the lifeguard and a woman who swam in the same lane as me knew other swim buddies of mine, adding to my growing sense that NYC swimmers are a big, happy family. With pools like this, it’s no wonder.

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Pools I Covet: Dutchess County YMCA

Poughkeepsie YMCA site availableWith the Poughkeepsie Middle School pool out of commission for a few months due to repairs and upgrades, the City of Poughkeepsie (pop. 37,000+) is now without a 25-yard pool. The other 25-yard pool from my youth, a YMCA downtown, closed in January 2009 and is pretty much blight at this point. Initial reports that a church group might take over the facility did not pan out, so it sits there empty. Makes me sad every time I pass it.

I could walk to that Y through my neighbors’ backyard, and often did for swim practice and other activities. It had your basic 25-yard, 6-lane pool. Prior to when I could walk there on my own, I attended various Red Cross swim programs, gym-and-swim, and even play group. I remember going to my brother’s gym-and-swim class too. It was definitely a well-used community fixture.

I hope that someone finds a way to return it to use.

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Happy Anniversary to TNYA at John Jay!

TNYA newsletter snip

Excerpt from "News of the World of NYAH," February 1990. (We are not sure if the reference to six lanes was due to optimism, misinformation, typographical error, or a last-minute change in the pool design.)

On Friday, March 9, 1990, TNYA began workouts at the new John Jay pool! This moment in pool history was announced in my team’s first-ever newsletter, published in February 1990 and recently unearthed by fellow TNYAer Charlie, who has begun digitally archiving the team’s history.

Back then, Team New York Aquatics had just become an official chapter within Empire State Masters. Annual dues were $10, the drop-in fee was $5, and a two-month subscription for one practice per week cost a mere $30. (For the sake of comparison, the 2012 fees are $40, $15, and $82, respectively.)

Fast forward 22 years and we are still at John Jay, though thick and thin and occasional swamp-like conditions. The new suit wringer that would have been an anachronism even in 1990 was partially disassembled yesterday, but I did manage to get it to squeeze some water out my suit anyway. Despite my complaints, it’s always a pleasure to swim there, and I look forward to many, many more years.

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#13: Asser Levy Recreation Center Indoor Pool

Location: New York, New York

Fee: Free (first Mondays only)

Configuration: 3 lanes of 22 yards

Total to Date: $128.91

For more than 100 years, the pool at East 23rd Street has been providing soothing waters and helping to build friendships. My first-ever visit was yesterday night with two pool buddies who met here in the late 1990s and are still good friends, Lisa Lisa and Stephanie, smiling by the spouting lion in the image at right. It was easy to imagine the many good times had here by swimmers though the ages, such as the group of women depicted at top right, whose poster-sized photo is also on the wall between the locker rooms and the pool.

Serving as an example of the pools-for-public-health movement we read about in Contested Waters, this Roman Revival bathhouse was built in 1906 and the pool opened in 1908. It gained an outdoor pool in 1936 and was later named the Asser Levy Recreation Center after the first Jewish citizen of New Amsterdam (now New York). I am not aware of any currently operating Manhattan pools that are older; please advise if you know otherwise.

precursor to the Sandpiper teamLisa Lisa and Stephanie by the Lion
Lisa Lisa, proud Sandpiper
Lisa Lisa and Asser Levy go back to the 1970s, when she and her four siblings participated in the Sandpiper Swim Team–from which she proudly displays memorabilia. Then as now, she appreciates the quirky 22-yard length, which makes hypoxic sets that much easier than in pools 3 yards longer, and the sculpted lion fountain in the middle lane. (Apologies for not taking better pictures; I was lucky to sneak the ones I got.) She returned to Asser Levy for an adult swim program, and that’s where she and Stephanie met.The pool reminded me of Met Pool, the younger bathhouse in Brooklyn, with its arched window looking in from the entryway, balconies, white-brick walls, and large skylight. Asser Levy’s skylight is now covered in something that blocks the view, but we caught sight of the moon from the windows in the wall far above the deep end. Also like Met Pool, which went from six lanes to three in the interest of having some wiggle room, this one has striping just for two lanes but instead was set up for three. One notable difference is that Asser Levy’s shape is actually octagonal, as each corner has a permanently attached ladder in a diagonal cutout.Perhaps due to my own increasing age, I appreciate these peculiarities, quirks, and vestiges of the past. Here’s to the good bones that allowed this pool to survive for 104 years, and here’s hoping it fosters many new friendships and new swimmers in the century ahead.
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