40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#28: Vesturbæjarlaug

play area of poolLocation: Reykjavik, Iceland

Configuration: 5 lanes of 25 meters + play area and 4 hot tubs

Fee: 500 ISK (Icelandic kronur), approximately $3.84

Fees to Date: $155.25

The Movie Star included directions to her neighborhood pool, Vesturbæjarlaug, in the notes she sent, which tells you both how well she understood the nature of my visit and how much Icelanders embrace their geothermally heated water. A day after I arrived, I was still sore from an action-packed weekend–kayaking in the choppy Hudson, a long pool workout, schelpping way too much stuff to and from my flight–so I wasn’t sure I wanted to go for a dip before the first day of competition. Peer pressure from Amanda and the knowledge that this pool was so close by after we returned “home” from our daylong Golden Circle tour proved too much to resist. Plus, I knew there would be hot tubs, or hot pots as per local parlance.

Amanda in a hot pot

The short swim and soak turned out to have a pleasant muscle-loosening effect, and it was also helpful to preview the local customs:

  • Scan your entry receipt in the turnstile for access to the locker room.
  • Take off your shoes before you enter the locker room.
  • Use the key provided for the locker–no need to have schlepped that lock all the way across the Atlantic.
  • Wash thoroughly before putting on your bathing suit and entering the pool area.
  • Be prepared for warm water, even in the lap pool.
  • Listen for gossip in the hot pots.
  • After your swim and shower, dry off while still in the shower area.
  • Laug means pool or bath. Sundlaug is specifically a swimming pool.

The hot pots were packed, and the rest of the facility was well used but not as popular. There were three different temperature options and a variety of depths among the four pots total, with helpful signs so you could freshen up on your understanding of Celsius.

floatin'I didn’t see a lifeguard at first but then realized he/she/they were in a fully enclosed structure on the far side. The pool is open all year round, even through the chilly and dark winter, after all.

What struck me here most was how nicely integrated the pool is into the surrounding neighborhood. People of all ages mixed and mingled. There were small groups of teenagers on their own, families with young children, solo swimmers, and friends like me and Amanda. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–a good pool makes for a good community.

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Have I mentioned that I’m going to Iceland?

Iceland mapMy long-anticipated trip to Iceland is almost here! I expect to visit several new pools while there and will try to keep the blogs posts coming. Before I take off, here’s some quick info about the trip.

Why Iceland? So many reasons, foremost being a swim meet that has been on my team’s calendar for years. I’m also looking forward to seeing the site of the world’s first Parliament, visiting the Blue Lagoon, and soaking in the Scandinavian-ness of the only Scandinavian country I haven’t been to. I’d mentally signed on to this trip ages ago, so it’s a happy coincidence for the 40 Pools Project that Iceland is a swimming mecca.

Are you going with anyone? My team has 74 swimmers ages 24 to 77 going, our largest-ever showing anywhere! There are close to 30 of us on my flight, which should be a fun experience in and of itself. Our coaches have put together an amazing roster of 41 relays.

What pool(s) will you be using? The swim events and water polo are all being held in Laugardalslaug (“The Pool of Pool Valley”), an indoor-outdoor pool complex that also has nine hot tubs. (Note to my teammates: If I fail to report for any relays, please search the hot tubs.) Diving and synchro are at the indoor Art Deco treasure Sundhöll Reykjavíkur (“The Swimming Palace of Reykjavík”). A pool called Vesturbæjarsundlaug (West Side Pool) is closest to where I’ll be staying.

What events are you swimming? My schedule is as follows (all long course meters). The swim competition is in the morning only.

  • Wednesday: 1500 free, 4 x free 200 relay, opening party at the Blue Lagoon
  • Thursday*: 400 IM, fly leg of 4 x 100 medley relay, Pink Flamingo competition (I’ll explain later)
  • Friday: 800 free, 100 back**, 4 x 100 free relay, 9:00 p.m. 250m open water swim followed by geothermal hot tub plunge
  • Saturday: 400 free
*I am not a butterflyer or an IMer. I’ll be glad when Thursday is over.
**One of my teammates is the former world record holder in the 50 back, and I’m in the same heat as her. So exciting!

The preliminary heat sheets show little to no competition in my age group, so I’ll try to get through those swims legally and really focus on the relays. If only I were swimming 100 meters more, I’d be doing the maximum amount possible.

What’s the meet? The meet is the annual championship for the IGLA league, which my team is part of. IGLA championships have been held in exotic destinations all over the world. Last year’s was in Hawai’i, and Copenhagen hosted in 2009. Alas, the only one I’ve been to was in the arguably less-glamorous College Park, Maryland, in 2008.

Where are you staying? I am swapping apartments with an Icelander who lives by the beach not far from downtown Reykjavik; Janet and Amanda will be staying with me there. The Icelander arrived in New York with her boyfriend yesterday, and as far as I can tell they are very nice people not likely to commit any serious crimes while living in my home. She is an actor, henceforth known as the Movie Star, and her BF tells me that we’ll be seeing her work on the plane. She is also in the confirmation e-mail from Icelandair that I received a few days ago.

Reykjavik is famous for its nightlife. Where do you plan to party? Um.

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Not a Pool: West Side Y Small Pool

West Side Y small pool
Janet had helped me plan my swim at the West Side Y so that I’d finish up when the so-called small pool was available. Previously unaware that this pool existed, I was excited to see it–and it did not disappoint. Entering from the showers at the upper left corner above is quite simply breathtaking. Look at the beautiful Spanish tiles, painted arches, colorful windows, and dramatic Neptune mosaic (bonus points if you figure out why it’s rated PG-13). If the skill and love that went into this pool were more common, the world would be a much happier and prettier place.

Neptune mural

At 20 yards, this pool might be used for laps at a lesser facility, but here it is the teaching pool, and the water is kept at a warm, learning-friendly temperature. We had to leave when a gaggle of extremely cute young children paraded in for their swim time.

Piecing together information from various sources, I believe that both pools were built at the same time as part of the 1930 building that the Y moved to from its 1896 home on West 57th Street. The new facility was the largest-ever Y up until that time. The architect,  Dwight James Baum, had a thing for Romanesque and Moorish styles, and he was not shy about expressing himself in this commission. His flair and attention to detail are evident throughout, including the marble columns and arched doorways on West 63rd Street, ornate chandeliers in common spaces, and that medieval-style door we saw in the larger pool. Alas, his masterpiece was being built as the U.S. economy slid into the Great Depression, and the small pool’s ornamentation was in question. None other than King Alfonso XIII of Spain came to the rescue, donating the tilework to ensure that the small pool was outfitted according to Baum’s splendid vision.

Hannah,Janet, and stained-glass windows

Some 75 years later, the tiles were showing their age, and again Spain stepped in, this time at the behest of a Y member originally from Spain. A 2006 restoration was completed with more than 600 hand-painted tile pieces created by a Spanish company called Adex. It’s an interesting story that I couldn’t do justice to without lifting it entirely, so I recommend you check it out: Tile Restoration of the Spectacular Spanish Pool of the West Side YMCA.

I’m counting this as not-a-pool because it is not set up for laps. I should point out, however, that the pesky rope separating deep end from shallow end did not deter one lap swimmer while Janet and I lazed around on floaty noodles. I should also point out that, pools aside, this entire Y has a truly wondrous array of offerings. The international organizations Achilles Track Club and Elderhostel both started here, the Writers Voice has its home here, there are overnight accommodations, a pre-school, and all the other fitness and community services one expects from a YMCA. I highly recommend a visit.

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#27: West Side YMCA Pool

Location: Upper West Side, New York

Configuration: 4 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free as guest of member (entry also available via Fitness Passbook or Y guest pass)

Fees to Date: $151.41

The “large pool” at the West Side Y almost fits the mold of the old city bathhouses that I’ve been enjoying, with its pretty tilework and five-lanes-on-the-bottom-but-only-four-up-top configuration, but it doesn’t have any windows. When I first came here many years ago, there was a bizarro swim pattern that required swimming one direction in one lane and moving over to an adjacent lane for the return, but that was corrected long ago.

fast lane sign hung up by band-aidsmystery doorI returned last Friday morning to get in the first of a few necessary long swims in preparation for stage 1 of 8 Bridges, which I finally signed up for, and it was perfect! It’s a real swimmers’ facility, with cool water, an on-deck stretching area with mats, supportive staff, and mostly good etiquette. Another novelty is that the backstroke flags are hung from the balcony railings. Ooh, towels are provided, too. The pool opens at 5:00 a.m. on weekdays, making even a rather long swim feasible before the work day begins.

I could see the clocks at either end clearly to watch the minutes pass and keep track of when feeding pauses were coming up. To help pass the time, I thought about the people who were instrumental in reviving the open water swim scene in New York, many of whom met here swimming masters in the 1990s. I also liked looking at the tiled waves in the pool gutters (you can see them in the lower left corner of the photo above) and wondering what was behind the medieval-looking mystery door by the shallow end.

Janet came for the last hour, so we were sometimes three in the lane then, but otherwise there was just one other person or me all by myself.  After all that, the best part was yet to come–another pool! Stay tuned.

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#26: NYU Jerome S. Coles Sports Center Natatorium

Coles poolLocation: Greenwich Village, New York

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 meters (+ separate diving well)

Fee: Free as guest of member

Fees to Date: $151.41

Update: Coles was demolished in 2016. Look for a new pool in the same location by 2021.

On Monday, my pool tourism took me to an extremely ugly building. It was so ugly that I did not take a picture (but here’s one and another if you’re curious). So ugly that although I’d seen it before, I mistook it for a municipal service building and not an athletic facility. (Apologies to municipal service buildings everywhere.) So ugly that just this month, more than 30 years after it opened, a real estate publication I happened to be reading at work described the building as “vaguely flesh-toned” and one of “two of the ugliest one-story structures in the city” together with the grocery store next door. I have not surveyed all of the one-story structures in Gotham, but I am willing to believe this is the ugliest. Mr. Coles was still alive when his namesake Jerome S. Coles Sports Center opened in 1981, designed by an architectural firm called Wank (I kid you not), and I hope that he was deep enough to see past the external appearance and appreciate what’s on the inside.

Coles pool gutter

The first earthen gutters I’ve encountered.

Certainly, there is plenty to like on the inside. For me, the best part was Leigh, my host, but first let me talk about the facility. The lap section of the pool is shallow and 25 meters, a nice extra bit of distance compared to the usual 25 yards. I’d heard that the water is warm, but it felt like the right temperature. At opening time on Monday morning, I had a lane to myself most of the time, with Leigh by herself the next lane over. The pool gutters appear to be terra cotta, a touch that seems very 1981. Otherwise, there isn’t much of visual interest in the natatorium.

Coles does have some sort of provision for limited “community” use (unlike NYU’s newer pool, Palladium), however as an uptowner I am not eligible. Leigh can join thanks to her status as an alum, and following a recent rate hike she got a number of guest passes that she was glad to share.

bright yellow bathroom stallsThe locker rooms span two floors and have a lot of capacity, as you’d expect from a facility serving such a large school. I particular enjoyed the bright yellow bathroom stalls, another reminder of 1981. If you want to take the elevator to the pool–and the elevator serves a purpose since the facility extends underground for several levels–press “N” for natatorium. I like that it gets its own button.

Leigh and HannahLeigh and I met thanks to NYC Swim. She got involved through the NYU Tri Club, which practices at Coles. (The swim team uses Palladium.) The first time I participated in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, as part of a relay in 2005, there were also two relays comprised of NYU Tri Club women: “Ladies of the Club” and “Mo’ Ladies of the Club.” They were a hoot, and I’ve admired their enthusiasm, volunteerism, and support of one another in and out of the water ever since. More recently, I learned that Leigh is also a talented painter. More about her work and the Ladies is in this nice profile published in the NYC Swim newsletter a year ago.

Leigh was an excellent guide at Coles, having me arrive just in time to be one of the first ones into the building, expertly navigating the locker room, and ensuring that we got the requisite picture. Alas, swimming here may not be an option for anyone much longer, as the building is slated for demolition along with the rest of the superblock, to be replaced by new NYU facilities as part of the NYU 2031 plan. Just as the previous round of NYU construction on this site was controversial, so are the plans for the future. I’ll refrain from editorializing except to say I hope there continues to be a pool here.

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Not a Pool: Spa Castle

John blasted by jets in one of the rooftop pools.

When is a pool not a pool? When it’s got NO SWIMMING signs all over the place. This is perfectly acceptable at the relaxation palace socked away near the decidedly unlovely College Point Industrial Park that is Spa Castle. It’s a great place to visit if you need to show some TLC to aching muscles or celebrate a special occasion with friends.

John and I spent the better part of the day here recently on a cool, sunny weekday that will remain unspecified in case either of us was actually supposed to be at work. First stop was the roof deck, which is loaded with pools, each warmer than the next. We easily passed a couple of hours up here in pool bliss, moving through the circuit of jets that pummeled various sore muscles and taking breaks to soak in the Japanese pine bath.

Eventually we succumbed to hunger and went to the main floor for some lunch followed by a tour through Sauna Valley. “Iceland,” a cold sauna with actual ice in it, called for return visits between roasts in the hot saunas. A new discovery here was the napping floor. It looks like marble, which you wouldn’t expect to be conducive to napping, but add heated units in the floor and small head cushions and before you know it you’re comfortably sound asleep. If only these were more common in the outside world, we would all be happier and more productive.

Finally, we split up for the gender-segregated nude baths. After basking in warmth all day, I couldn’t go deeper than my calves in the 60-degree plunge pool, much less the even colder one.

The facility is run with an industrial precision that might be unpleasant were it not devoted to relaxation. Everyone wears the uniform provided upon check-in, and access to lockers and food is via an RFID bracelet, so you don’t have to carry anything around. Towels were provided in abundance when I visited previously, but now they are scant and small, so it’s a good idea to bring your own. There were definite signs of wear and tear on roof deck, with waterfalls and the mushroom-shaped fountain out of service and occasional stray plastic drink cups submerged in the water, and we were surprised to see so many children around on a school day, but we didn’t let these inconveniences stop us from enjoying a day at the spa.

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Not a Pool: Hudson River at Poughkeepsie

the swimmers start, heading toward the Mid-Hudson Bridge

On June 2, there’s going to be a new open water event in my hometown, the 2 Bridges Swim Under the Walkway. The two bridges are the FDR Mid-Hudson Bridge (above) and about a kilometer to the north the Walkway Over the Hudson, a former railroad bridge that is now an extremely popular state park. The race will give people the option of doing a loop course under them both once or twice.

Dave's boat coming out of the waterThe race organizers needed people to test out the course in advance of the real thing, and of course I was happy to help. I think that’s me with the straight-left-arm recovery in the shot above, which was taken by mom as we left her on the dock with all of our swim stuff, on Mother’s Day no less. Once a swim mom, always a swim mom! The water temperature was in the high 50s and the clouds gradually cleared as we swam, yet the water stayed pleasantly flat and untrafficked. We spread out, but “Captain” Dave (of Gunks Masters) was always easy to spot in his new orange toy (above).

no swimming signEven though I grew up a short distance from this very location, I don’t think I’d ever been in the water here. I’m not sure it even occurred to us, the Hudson was so poorly regarded and PCB-filled back then. These days, we have no qualms about jumping in, but access here is still restricted to special events such as this one and its bigger sibling, the 8 Bridges Swim later in June.

The sun was in my eyes as I breathed on the Poughkeepsie side of the river, so I didn’t see much other than the high-rise Rip Van Winkle House apartment building. On the west side, it’s mostly trees with just a few buildings peeking out. The bridges themselves are the main attraction, and they make for very easy sighting/navigation. Of the two, I liked the Walkway better due to the interesting steel latticework under the deck and in the stanchions.

The swim course (click for larger view).

Aside from the sheer novelty of being in the water here, the main thing I noticed was the taste. In New York City, where I’ve swum in the Hudson numerous times with NYC Swim, it’s salty. Up here, the water is fresh and, at least today, dirt-flavored with high turbidity. The temperature was very even–no warm spots or cold spots–and we were lucky to not encounter much flotsam and jetsam. All in all, I highly recommend going for a swim here, and I’d do so again myself if I weren’t going to be in Iceland at the time of the event. Again, that’s 2 Bridges on June 2.

Pre-swim: Willie, Janet, Carolyn, Terry, me, John, Andrew.

Post-swim warmup with Dilan the canoe-riding dog. (Yes, he’s wearing a lifejacket.)

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#25: Bard College Stevenson Athletic Center Pool

view from the deep endLocation: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free due to lack of attendant, otherwise $10 for one-day pass

Fees to Date: $151.41

I was in Poughkeepsie again this weekend and wanted to get in a good pool swim. Luckily, my local swim buddy, Carolyn, was planning to swim at the Bard College pool, which I’d never been to. We got there in time for its opening at 8:30 on Saturday morning and each had a lane to ourselves the entire time. The picture above is from right after we got out; notice how empty it is.

neatly organized equipment roomCarolyn is a regular here on the weekends, when the FISH Masters team doesn’t have workouts. She said it’s often not quite so empty, especially first thing in the day. However, the rules require swimmers to split a lane rather than circle swim, meaning that you’ll have at most one other person in the lane once you get in. How very Floridian!

Other nice things: the view out to the soccer field plus windows on two other sides, the amazingly clear water (which I was able to appreciate, having finally given up my old, foggy goggles), the taste of the water (a bit salty, although it was treated with chlorine according to the lifeguard), the very well-organized equipment room (above left). It’s also on an exquisitely beautiful campus overlooking the Hudson, pretty enough to rival even Vassar. The only thing I would have changed is the water temperature, which was too warm by a few degrees.

Carolyn and Hannah in the poolAlthough the pool dates to 1991, only in the past academic year was it used for a swim team. Bard introduced men’s and women’s varsity swimming during the 2011-12 season! Lest you feel sorry that swimming has come late to the party, take note that is ahead of America’s favorite pastime. Baseball is expected to launch here  in spring 2013.

One other perk of swimming here is that when I met up with Carolyn, I also got to meet Lucy, her incredibly soft, cute, and affectionate feline fan.

Lucy the swim cat

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#24: Tony Dapolito Recreation Center Indoor Pool

2 1/2 feet deepLocation: West Village, Manhattan

Configuration: 3 lanes of 23 yards

Fee: Free on first Mondays

Fees to Date: $151.41

What the Tony Dapolito pool lacks in depth it makes up for in character. It matches the look and feel of the city-run bathhouses-turned-pools I’ve visited on the first Mondays of the past four months, which is to say it has an abundance of natural light, careful tilework, a surface lane count that doesn’t match the striping on the bottom (multicolor striped lines in this case), and loads of eager swimmers.

The relatively large number of people crowding into the three lanes this past Monday evening and the counterclockwise flow of the middle lane allowed for leisurely swimming only. The reasoning for this traffic pattern is unclear but ingrained. Met Pool‘s no-breaststroke policy would make a positive difference here.

Thanks to Ralph-visiting-from-the-Netherlands for this photo.

At just two and a half feet deep in the shallow end, it is easily the shallowest pool I’ve done a flip turn in all year. When I first jumped in, my legs weren’t even fully submerged, much to the amusement of my less tall swim buddies Lisa Lisa and her sister Kris. The water is so shallow that the “fingertip drag” drill could take on a whole new meaning here, as it is indeed possible to touch the bottom while approaching the wall. That’s no excuse not to do a flip turn, though–I managed to do plenty without any problem.

Many of these pools came about due to an 1895 law requiring New York State cities with more than 50,000 people to have free bathhouses; you can read more about this in this history of the Dapolito Rec Center, which opened way back in 1908.

The former Carmine Street Recreation Center is at Clarkson and Seventh Avenue South.

In that same piece, you’ll see that until recently it was known as the Carmine Street Recreation Center. If you, like me, have that name in your head, don’t let it fool you.The building is not actually on Carmine Street, as you can see in the photo at left. This minor detail coupled with the usual navigational challenges of the West Village had me going in circles trying to find the place.

There’s also an outdoor pool open here in the summer, and it appeared in the gallery show I saw recently. It is not very big and uses the short axis for lap swimming, so I’ve never been interested in visiting.

The 2004 renaming of the rec center honors a local community leader and owner of a famous local bakery. Should you wish to commemorate his legacy, perhaps you could visit the nearby Jacques Torres Chocolate. Lisa Lisa, Kris, and I sampled three types of cookies and deemed good old chocolate chip to be by far the most superior.

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#23: Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Aquatics Center

busy pool deck during the meetLocation: Flushing, Queens

Configuration: 10 lanes of 25 yards + 4 lanes of 25 meters

Fee: Free swim meet

Fees to Date: $151.41

Once upon a time not that long ago, New York City dreamed of hosting the 2012 Olympic Summer Games. Fast forward to the present, and London is billions of pounds over budget as it finishes preparations for the Games . . . while New York City has a thriving new pool.

The organization NYC 2012 worked for years to craft a compelling plan that would have scattered major new sports venues throughout the city, including a whitewater course in Flushing, mountain biking on Staten Island, and a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan. While most people weren’t 100% in favor of all the particulars, the idea of the world’s greatest athletes putting on a show right here in New York generated a lot of enthusiasm.

I was working for an organization that took a very active role in supporting the bid and that would have benefited greatly from the Games. Our CEO traveled to Singapore to help make the final case to the IOC in summer 2005, and it came as a rude shock when New York was eliminated during an early round of voting. We resumed business as usual after that, since the city opted not to rebid for 2016.

Although it did not open until February 2008, the Flushing Meadows Pool and Rink is a legacy of that bid. It had been planned previously but then put on hold, only to be revived by the Bloomberg administration as the potential venue for Olympic water polo. Maybe one day it will end up serving that role, but in the meantime we have ourselves a magnificent 50-meter public pool, and yours truly was lucky enough to be one of the first people to ever swim in it.

ready to get in

Lisa Lisa, Miriam, and I were among the first-ever swimmers in this pool in February 2008. Miriam was back for the meet.

Lisa Lisa had gotten word of the pool’s “soft opening,” and she, Miriam, and I paid it a visit during that brief time when it was quietly free and in need of swimmers to test the waters. Then as now, it was hard to find but a lovely swim experience, with views out over Flushing Meadow-Corona Park and a seemingly endless supply of lanes. Designed by Handel Architects under the supervision of NYC EDC, it is now part of New York City Parks & Recreation, though it is managed by an outside company. You can join for the regular rec center fee, but unlike at most rec centers you can also buy a one-day pass ($10 for adults). You can’t swim for free the first Monday of every month.

My return yesterday was free due to the annual NYC Parks & Rec Masters Yard Swim Meet & Commissioner’s Trophy Relay, a very fun gathering of many local teams. I did the meet once before, in 2010, and that time we swam down by the diving boards. This time around we were at the other end of the pool, with warm-up lanes across the middle. The Parks Department knows a thing or two about putting on events, and they run this meet very tightly and with flourish. Within about 2 hours I’d done five events and earned myself a T-shirt, a trophy, a bunch of ribbons, and a photo op.

Two fun features of this pool: digital depth display, and outdoor deck.

My favorite thing about this pool is its very existence. To think that plans for this stunning and not inexpensive facility moved forward even after we knew it wouldn’t be used for the 2012 Olympic Games makes me almost appreciate my high taxes. Little touches I like are the digital depth display–a clever way of handling the changing depth allowed by the movable bottom–and the spacious sun deck along the length of the pool.

I don’t like the warm water temperature, and I hear that the lap swim sessions are overflowing with lane after lane after lane of breaststrokers. Carolyn from FISH Masters was at the meet, and she warned me that the front desk is normally very strict about the requirement that patrons have sturdy locks. At a previous visit, her lock was deemed inadequate, so she went across the street to Home Depot and got another. (If you really want to be tricky, you don’t even need to use the lock, so you can return it afterward.)

I’ve done less than a handful of meets as a masters swimmer, and it was good to have this opportunity to practice before the big meet in Iceland. That one is spread out over four days, so it will be a different kind of experience. Three weeks to go!

Third place in the Commissioner’s Trophy Relay: me, Jack, Elisabeth, and RJ. Go TNYA! Photo by John H. Hutchins, Director of Citywide Aquatics.

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