40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#22: JCC in Manhattan Pool

a pool with a view

Photo borrowed from Diamond Schmitt, http://www.dsai.ca/projects/the-jcc-in-manhattan.

Location: Upper West Side, Manhattan

Configuration: 5 lanes of 25 meters

Fee: Free with members guest pass

Fees to Date: $151.41

My TNYA lane-mate Aliza teaches swim classes at the JCC, and I’ve been scheming to join her for a swim here for months, including getting a pass from a bona fide member. Today was the day things worked out, and it happened to be a great one for appreciating this pool’s most special characteristic: its view. The building is on a corner lot in the heart of the Upper West Side, and rather than being buried underground, the pool is up on the sixth floor! The north and east walls are all windows, allowing the sun to shine in and the swimmers to look out, whether to admire said view out toward Central Park, spy on tony neighbors, do your planks for the world to see, or watch the clouds roll in.

Classic New York water towers in the distance, as seen from my lane.

The JCC recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Its opening was part of a welcome trend of health clubs being loaded with spa-inspired products, amenities, and decor to give a sense of relaxation and luxury rather than just providing an exercise venue. It’s nice to visit places like this, especially if you’re used to dingy basement warrens. Just not having to bring my own towel makes a place rank as pretty fancy in my book! (Speaking of books, the JCC used to be included in the Fitness Passbook, but unfortunately it disappeared from that a couple years ago.) In addition to not bringing towels, you could also skip bringing natural soap, fortifying shampoo and conditioner, hair styling gel, and spray deodorant, as you will find all this and more in the locker room.

View and amenities aside, it’s an OK but not great pool–shallow all the way across, a little on the warm side, wide lanes, deck-side showers and bathroom, and a separate teaching pool. Why they couldn’t have added one more lane for an even six, I don’t know. I would have chosen that instead of the extra length provided by the 25 meters if anyone had asked me.

Aliza and HannahThat extra lane would have been handy this morning, as I must have shared my lane with about 20 people in the course of less than two hours. Aliza and I swam together for a fun 45 minutes, and otherwise most swimmers were in and out rather quickly. The lifeguards proactively moved people into pace-appropriate lanes, but still the range of speeds in the “fast” lane provided a navigational challenge that varied from lap to lap given the high turnover. The locker rooms were really crowded too. According to Aliza, this is par for the course; she usually doesn’t get to do a real swim workout here.

Sadly for us but happily for Aliza, she is going to be leaving town to start med school this summer. She has an impressive pool-tourism background, with numerous midwestern and mid-Atlantic pools to her credit, and I hope we get to do some other non-TNYA swims together before she goes.

windows on the pool

Pool with a view.


#21: St. Francis College Aquatics Center

Hannah, Janet, Mike

How much room do we have? This much!

Location: Downtown Brooklyn, New York

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free with Terrier Masters workout group

Fees to Date: $151.41

Pay close attention, because I am only going to tell you this once: You can have your own lane for a coached workout in a well-kept 25 yard pool five days a week for free. You don’t have to be on a quest to swim in 40 pools or to know anyone special; you do need to be a USMS member, and then all it takes is showing up to swim at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays.

polo championship bannerspolo caps and ballsThe pool belongs to St. Francis College, and the swim group is the Terriers, named after the college teams. In the aquatics world, St. Francis is best known for its men’s water polo team, which routinely wins Division I titles. Evidence of this isn’t hard to find: You pass a trophy case soon after entering the building, championship banners from the 1960s to 2010 line the walls above the pool, polo goal nets sit on deck, and the equipment room is full of balls and caps.

Mike, a great swimmer and volunteer I know through open water events, clued me in to this marvel, and Janet and I made the trip to swim with him early this morning. The East River was beautifully calm and pink with the reflection of the pre-sunrise sky as I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, and it was a treat to be able to enjoy the view at that hour (though not something I’d want to wake up early enough for every day!). Arriving at the pool, it felt like we were entering a secret society–through the hall, down the stairs, turn on the lights, put in the lane lines, string up the flags, and presto, a pool of our very own.

The coaches on deck, Ben and Megan, provided a warm welcome and a challenging workout. Aside from this daily morning mitzvah, they both coach women’s water polo at St. Francis and work other jobs. There were at most a handful of other people participating, and the three of us each had our own lane except when Janet and I had separation anxiety and decided to share. Some of the swimmers did Ben’s workout, and some did their own thing. (Our timing worked out very well, as it turns out that Ben and Mike had gone surfing out at Rockaway yesterday morning rather than going to St. Francis.)

The pool was quite pleasant, if not as glamorous as you might expect of a polo powerhouse. My only complaint would be the dim lighting, and guess what? Starting very soon, the pool is going to close for a couple months for renovations that will replace the filtration system and redo the lighting. Problem solved.

Thank you, “little college of big dreams,” for proving that sometimes life is every bit as good as a dream.

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#20: Vassar College Kresge Pool

Vassar College poolLocation: Poughkeepsie, New York

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: $10 drop-in fee with FISH Masters

Fees to Date: $151.41

Not content with just one visit to a pool at a formerly all-women’s college last week, I swam at Vassar College’s Kresge Pool in Poughkeepsie on Friday. I’d been there a number of times in my youth, since–then, as now–the pool served as a stand-in when other area pools were out of commission. When the YMCA closed for asbestos removal, for example, we swam at Vassar. The excuse now is the closure of the PMS pool for safety and efficiency upgrades. (Under regular circumstances, people from outside the Vassar community can only use the pool with a student, faculty, or staff person after providing at least 24 hours’ advance notice.)

Hannah, Carolyn, Vassar College pool

Me and FISH co-captain Carolyn.

I was happy to be here, as the pool has a very nice feeling to it and the water is exceptionally clear and just right temperature-wise. There’s a shallow bulkhead at the far end, separating off the diving well, and it is oh-so-tempting to peek underneath! Plus, the FISH Masters are very welcoming, even as they prepare for USMS Spring Nationals.

The pool continues a long tradition of athletics at Vassar. Its School of Physical Training, which opened with the college’s founding in 1865, is considered a milestone in women’s sports. The campus’s first pool opened in 1890, attracting female swimmers who wore “long black stockings and heavy cotton suits, which they dried by hanging them over the railing between sessions” according to this history. (This sounds tortuous to this pool tourist, who does not even like wearing stockings outside the pool!) In 1933, Vassar opened a pool in Kenyon Hall that was big enough for canoeing and hosted an extremely popular synchronized swim club. (Kenyon is still standing, but squash courts are its only remaining athletic facilities.) The pool I swam in is part of Walker Field House, which opened in 1982 (well after the school turned co-ed) and always reminded me of the 1972 Munich Olympic Stadium, with its undulating roofline.

Walker Field House in the sun

Walker Field House in the morning sun.

The Vassar campus is worth a visit regardless of whether you make it to the pool. Growing up in Poughkeepsie, I thought that all colleges must be this pretty, but that is definitely not the case; Vassar’s campus is exceptional, especially on a beautiful morning . . . or a crisp fall afternoon . . . or a snowy winter day. I enjoyed my sunrise bike ride up to the field house and am happy to report that my bike was unmolested during my swim, unlike at Poughkeepsie Middle School.

The real reason for my trip to Poughkeepsie, though, was to see this guy. My third time meeting him was the charm, as I finally got him to sit on my lap and enjoy a head scratch.

Toby the cat



Pools I Covet: High Line Pool

I didn’t expect the new book about the High Line to contain pool-related material, but it turns out that Nathalie Rinnie of Austria envisioned the elevated rail structure as a mile-and-a-half-long, highly covetable lap pool in her submission for a 2003 ideas competition. Her proposal would have striped black lines on the bottom and filled the structure with water, allowing for an incredible swim above, alongside, and through buildings in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Wow. Just walking the High Line provides such a new and different perspective. Can you imagine swimming it?!

Out of 720 entries in the conceptual competition, which was run when demolition was still a threat, this was one of four winners, and it remains the favorite of one of the two founders of Friends of the High Line. (Click through to see the birthday-suit clad swimmer who added to the proposal’s appeal.) Since then the organization not only succeeded in preserving the High Line but managed the process of turning it into a beautiful and popular promenade and park.

The northernmost section, which sweeps dramatically over toward the Hudson, remains unfinished, so I’ll hold out hope that at least a portion of it could be turned into a pool. It would have to be a lap pool (rather than a wading pool or Dumpster pool) so that you could swim along with your head at water level and take in the views to either side. I can’t think of any greater incentive for people to practice bilateral breathing. A pool shorter than the full length of the line would have a particular benefit for me as well, because of my self-imposed requirement to swim two lengths of butterfly in every pool workout. A mile of fly sounds impossible, but I would work at it if only this pool were real.


#19: Hunter College North Pool

looking toward the shallow end of Hunter's poolLocation: Upper East Side, Manhattan

Configuration: 4 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: $2 guest pass with member accompaniment

Total Fees to Date: $141.41

Fittingly enough for a school formerly dedicated to teacher education, the Hunter College pool has a thing or two to teach other pools. Through a 2008 renovation by mdm Architecture, the pool gained a high-efficiency dehumidification unit and a low-tech cover, both of which make it more energy efficient.

You can see the cover along the far wall in the photo above; it gets reeled across from the deep end using a cable strung up near the ceiling. Covering the pool overnight keeps water from evaporating, which reduces heat loss, the amount of chemicals required, and the run time for the dehumidifier. It’s such a simple and smart idea that I wonder why other indoor pools don’t follow suit and blanket themselves after hours.

I think the pool must date to the late 1930s along with the rest of the North building it is housed in. The school did not start admitting men until the 1960s, meaning that the pool was built primarily for women, which is neat to think about. (Skinny women, if the lane width is any indication.) In my imagination, the swim times of yore were a bit friendlier than the tightly schedule women’s only session I tried at the Shorefront Y, for example. Other than the small size of just four narrow lanes, it’s a fine place to swim, though a bit on the warm side. People had reasonably good lane etiquette, as is necessary in such tight quarters, the lifeguards were friendly and helpful, and the locker room was adequate if lacking in frills. Fellow swimmers represented a wide variety of skills, ages, and ethnicities, including a woman in a full-body swim cover who I believe was Muslim.

Hannah and Stephanie after swimming

Most of Hunter’s other athletic facilities are in the 1985 Sportsplex at the bottom of the West building, which lays claim to being the deepest building in New York City. We had to stop at the Sportsplex as part of the entry process before heading over to the pool, which is just one flight below ground. Like at LaGuardia Community College, there’s a cumbersome sign-in process involving multiple stops before you are allowed in to swim.

This pool scores as the closest to my apartment among the 19 (!) to date, but it’s not one I can use regularly, as guests are only allowed with a Hunter student, faculty, staff, or alum who has a free fitness membership. My entry came courtesy of Stephanie, a big supporter of this project who is already scheming about more pool tourism. When she’s not swimming, she’s a librarian, helping to ensure that Hunter’s teaching legacy continues.


United States Masters Swimming

USMS logoUSMS, a non-profit organization/governing body, supports swimmers ages 18 and up in a variety of ways, including offering guidelines and insurance to teams and sanctioning meets and events all across the country. In short, it is a pool tourist’s best friend.

Individual USMS membership is generally required in order to practice with a USMS team. As a courtesy, many teams welcome traveling USMS members into their workouts for free. My team offers a free week to visitors, for example, and my project has benefited from similar generosity at the Poughkeepsie Middle School pool with FISH Masters and the SUNY New Paltz pool with the Gunks Masters. Years ago, someone I knew spent the summer traveling across the country and swimming with USMS groups all along the way.

If the opportunity to swim is not rewarding enough, you can track your workouts on the USMS “flog” (aka fitness log) and win free stuff! I am doing this for the first time this year and am waiting for the free cap I’ve earned to materialize. By the end of the year, I hope to score a free swim suit. This in itself more than covers the price of USMS membership, plus it’s good motivation. Nothing annoys me more than my flog telling me, “You need to pick up the pace.” If it only knew how busy I’ll be during summer outdoor pool season, I’m sure it would lighten up.

Should you need training ideas or swim buddies, USMS has you covered there, too. You can choose from a variety of workouts refreshed weekly, read up on stroke techniques, and follow along with other USMS members’ swimming in their blogs, even meeting virtual training partners. Together with an interesting magazine that shows up in the mail every couple of months, these tools help build a strong–and growing–community.

One other member perk coming up is the free Commissioner’s Trophy meet at the gorgeous Flushing Meadows Corona Park Aquatic Center. Scheduled for Sunday, May 6, it’s hosted by City of New York Parks & Recreation and open to all USMS members. It’s a fun event and a good chance to augment your trophy collection, meet other swimmers, and hear about their pools. I’ve only done this meet once before due to scheduling conflicts, but I can make it this year and look forward to it being my 20-something-th pool.

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#18: Hansborough Recreation Center Pool


Location: Harlem, Manhattan

Configuration: 3 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free (first Mondays only; Parks & Rec membership required otherwise)

Total Fees to Date: $139.41

See that 12-foot-wide lane in the middle of the pool? Reader, I had it all to myself for part of yesterday morning, during which I swam plenty of backstroke smack down the middle underneath the skylight’s center set of windows. It felt like I’d died and gone to pool heaven.

The entire visit was the best of all worlds: good company, a beautiful “new” pool, and a real workout. It was the first Monday of April, no foolin’, so Meg, Piez, and I met here at Hansborough Recreation Center to take advantage of NYC’s monthly free day at a pool none of us had been to previously.

The most stunning visual features of this 1925 bathhouse are the huge skylight and the ornate tile-work, the latter of which you can admire in this virtual tour. I also really liked the music playing loudly enough for swimmers to groove to. It seemed to have the effect of making people extra friendly and relaxed. We got there for the “general swim” between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. and stayed into the “adult lap swim” between 8:00 and 9:00, and there was no discernible difference between these two sessions except that the pool gradually emptied out, with the middle lane going from five to one and then gaining a couple more people. Because it’s so wide, people don’t start circle swimming until there are four or more in the lane.

70 feet marker

70 feet. Congratulations, you're almost to the wall!


Easy in, easy out.

I’m noticing similarities among the various bathhouse pools this project has introduced me to: classically inspired architecture, an airy and light-filled pool hall that serves as the building’s centerpiece rather than being buried in the basement, an elevated balcony or rooms overlooking the pool, built-in ladders or stairs, and lane lines that do not align with the bottom-of-the-pool markings. In this case, there were five lines of black tiles on the bottom–with novel markers every 10 feet to help you gauge your progress–but only three lanes designated up top.

No mention of this pool is complete without discussion of the Honeys and Bears, a group of water-loving seniors I first learned about in this 2007 New York Times article. I’ve since encountered them at meets and award ceremonies, but this was my first time seeing them in their “fountain of youth.” From the pool and locker room chatter, I could tell that the group has many similarities to my circle of swim friends, in that members know each others’ quirks and habits intimately, encourage newcomers, support their pool buddies through thick and thin as they work to maintain fitness or achieve specific goals, and carry on conversations between swims as if there were no gap at all.

Meg on her bike outside the pool

Due to a camera malfunction, I don't have a picture of me and my pool buddies at this swim, but I did catch Meg as she arrived at the bathhouse.

The difference is that the Honeys and Bears are all at least 50 years old, and that most of them are African American. On many teams, and in many pools, the majority of swimmers are white, and stereotypes about black people not being able to swim are not uncommon. Lynn Sherr’s Swim shows the historical inaccuracy of this stereotype, and groups like the Honey and Bears and Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones’s Make a Spash Tour are changing the reality on the ground.

Originally called the 134th Street Bathhouse, the recreation center was renamed in 1984 after John Rozier Hansborough Jr. (1907-1981), who was the first of two African Americans in the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials. It’s a thriving community hub for all types of athletics as well as self-improvement classes such as hat-making! From the entrance lobby, which seems like the kind of place you could easily pass the day, to the friendly and helpful staff, it’s clear that pool tourists from near and far are readily welcome here.


#17: Baruch College Pool

shallow end at BaruchLocation: Kips Bay, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 meters

Fee: $10.50 TNYA subscription

Total Fees to Date: $139.41

After viewing pool art on display across town, I had a good practice with my team on Saturday evening at Baruch College. The pool is kept at a consistently cool temperature and doesn’t change colors like its uptown cousin. Plus, I always enjoy swimming with my team–particularly sharing a lane with the likes of Hugh, Alex, Glenn, and Cara. (Our numbers were down because a lot of folks were just finishing up a week of outdoor-pool-bliss Swim Camp in Fort Lauderdale.)

I used to swim here much more regularly, back when the lane lines had fluted plastic floats that scraped up my hands when I hit them–something I did (and do) all too often–and eventually I decided enough was enough. The lane lines got replaced with less malicious ones a few years ago, but this pool never made it back into my regular rotation. Maybe that’s because I just can’t get excited about it. Each of its strengths is counterbalanced by a negative in my mind.

The Good The Bad
It’s part of one of CUNY’s highly touted newer (2001) buildings, the Newman Vertical Campus. The building entrance is almost always under scaffolding because its award-winning design resulted in a facade that spills snow, ice, and bricks onto entrants.
Strong collegiate, continuing ed, and community swim programs use the pool. My team only gets to rent out half the pool, meaning we squeeze into three lanes.
Then length is 25 meters, a rarity around here but a standard for international competitions. I’m no good on figuring out my intervals for short-course meters.

And then there’s the ugly: the women’s locker room. The drains are at high points in the floor, making them ineffective at actually draining water and resulting in the formation of stagnant, hair- and scuzz-filled lakes in the lower-lying areas such as in front of the sink and by the lockers. There used to be rubber mats on the floor, which helped, but they disappeared a while ago. If I were coordinated enough, I would use platform flip-flops when visiting here, so as to reduce my chances of contracting Legionnaires’ disease.

If my rousing endorsement has convinced you to visit this pool, you can try it with my team or a few other teams that swim here, or buy a small package of visitor passes. Forewarned is forearmed.