40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#39: Oceana at Brighton Beach

Oceana shrubberyLocation: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

Configuration: 5 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: $15 weekday guest fee with resident (rising to $30 on weekends)

Fees to Date: $181.74

This is the true story of a dream encounter that came about thanks to the Internet and a little help from my friends. The in-person meeting revealed a pool that perhaps did not quite live up to my grand expectations, but we had an enjoyable evening together nonetheless.

Hannah, Tim, pool

Me and Tim with the pool in the background.

The pool is Oceana at Brighton Beach, which you may recall me coveting back in February. It’s across the street from the Shorefront Y and backs up to the beach in a condo complex that counts Olympic backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg among its residents. From the aerial photo and beachside rumors, I convinced myself that it was enormous and that Lenny would be giving pointers from the deck.

My opportunity to visit came thanks to my friend and fellow birthday-goal-setter Christopher, who happened to meet an Oceana resident named Tim while swimming at the beach. Christopher put us in touch, and Tim was more than happy to oblige. The only catch was his limited time left at Oceana, as he is moving to the Midwest after eight years in residence, so I cajoled a friend into joining me and hurried out to visit him and his pool. The visitor fee of $15 is high for this miserly pool tourist, but after this offer landed in my lap, how could I refuse?

men clean for women, women clean for menJohn and I arrived about an hour before closing last Wednesday evening and were immediately struck by the topiary (see above). The complex had a real community feel, with flowers abloom in neatly trimmed patches everywhere you looked, kids zipping about on bikes, and people socializing on the front stoops.

Tim brought us over to sign in at the clubhouse, where we scratched our heads over the locker room notice. There must be a reason for the mixed-gender cleaning schedule, but we’re not sure what it is. At any rate, the locker rooms were quite clean, with showers among the tallest I’ve seen.

Finally, the pool I coveted for so long was within reach! Tim injected a dose of reality into my dreams, letting us know that the size was just 25 yards and that Lenny is elusive. Further, he advised, “There is one lonely lap lane and common obstacles are kids and ladies with an amazing talent . . . they are able to slowly dog paddle while floating completely upright and without wetting their hair.” All of this turned out to be true, but it was nice to finally get to swim there nonetheless.

Oceana at closing timeBehold, the pool. It’s got a circular shallow end with underwater stadium seating, a separate wading pool, a separate fountain, and a decent swim area. Upon beginning to swim, I discovered white-tiled lane markings on the bottom, a nice surprise that’s not visible from out of the water. While we were joined by a backstroker part of the time, I’m sorry to report that he was not Lenny. We also had the good company of a very young swimmer enthusiastically working on her butterfly–an inspiration to yours truly. People were friendly and relaxed, with pool-goers of all ages enjoying the scene, and we even had a nice chit-chat with a resident Realtor who’d noticed our telltale visitor wristbands. By all reports, Oceana is a lovely place to live.

Oceana indoor poolWhen the pool closed at 8:00 p.m., the gate to the beach closed too, so we peered at the ocean from afar. The next stop was the attractive indoor pool, for sightseeing only, before leaving to explore more of Brooklyn’s culinary delights at a restaurant I’d been coveting with equal fervor. It was quite a fun evening and also a good example of how willpower can make dreams come true.

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#38: Crotona Park Pool

me in a giant empty pool

Location: Claremont Village, Bronx

Configuration: However many 100-meter trajectories you can squeeze in without lane lines or markings

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $166.74

Read closely, because I am about to let you in on a big secret. 100 meters big, to be precise. The Crotona Park Pool is hiding in plain sight in its namesake park in the Bronx, and my visit there last Thursday night found a giant, loooong, empty pool that you can have all to yourself during lap swim hours. It’s a true, blue, New York miracle.

In case you are unfamiliar with 100-meter lengths, consider that completing a 400 IM here takes just four laps. The mile, 15. If you happen to be the type of person who forces yourself to do two laps of butterfly in every pool you visit, beware this behemoth. A lap of fly here is no joke, let me tell you. Don’t let me tell you anything else, though–go see for yourself.

John, Janet, Rondi, Piez, John, Lisa Lisa, Andrew, and Miriam with the attractive bathhouse in the background. Not pictured: Willard.

My first visit capped a 2008 Pool Tourism Club outing that is still one for the record books: a four-pool, all-day tour of the Bronx. The more recent visit may have broken the record for most lap swimmers here. Our contingent was nine people strong last Thursday for Night Owl swimming and frolicking as a brutal heat wave was finally breaking. There was evidence that the pool had been well used during the day, but no one remained for lap swimming. If not for us, in fact, the handful of lifeguards and staff on duty would have had nothing to do except watch the white cat wandering around the bleachers. Instead, we enlivened their evening with a show including closed-eye swimming (I held a straight course once and veered left between pyramids into the shallow-end rope another time), pyramid-circling figure eights, and the dreaded lengths of fly.

I was especially glad to have Miriam and Rondi join in, as they have been excellent swim buddies and adventurers for years, yet they managed to avoid showing up in this blog until now.

pool entranceThe pool dates to the annus mirabilis of NYC pool, 1936. It is not the biggest facility to have opened that summer, but it ties in length with a few others and is the only one to offer lap-swimming on the long axis. You can check it out during Early Bird or Night Owl sessions. I’ve only ever visited in the evening, when the setting sun makes for a beautiful twilight, with pretty row houses and trees completing the view.

What’s wrong with it? Well, there are no lines on the bottom, and the locker room presents the opportunity for voyeurism with its wide-open doors onto the pool deck, but neither of these things is much of a problem when no one else is around.

Some of my fellow pool tourists have already returned for a loooong-course workout, and I may well join them for a break from the John Jay masses. Plus, I need to figure out what’s up with the four-foot pies. After the supersized laps, a giant slice o’ pie would really hit the spot.

4 ft pies

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#37: Jackie Robinson Park Pool

line-free lap swimming

John, Lisa Lisa, Janet, and Rondi claim some underwater turf. Not pictured: Piez, Ed.

Location: Harlem, Manhattan

Configuration: However many 25-meter trajectories you can squeeze in without lane lines or markings

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $166.74

It’s a busy season for pool tourists, especially if you view the city’s outdoor lap-swim offerings as a checklist. In the try-them-all spirit, and thanks to organization by Lisa Lisa, the Pool Tourism Club convened at Jackie Robinson Pool last Wednesday morning. We found ourselves a narrow strip of unclaimed blue highway the short way across the pool and proceeded to have some fun.
Janet strikes up a chordJanet had done her homework, providing a font of Jackie Robinson-specific and general baseball trivia to enliven our swim sets. Jackie’s accomplishments, you see, include breaking the color line in baseball, when in 1947 he became the first African-American athlete to play professionally. His team was the Dodgers, then based in Brooklyn, and he earned himself title roles in a city park, pool, school, and highway.

Our warm-up was a set of nine with a stretch after number seven. We practiced sliding into the wall and did some reps of four balls followed by a walk. In honor of Jackie’s retired #42, we stretched to see how much ground we could cover in 42 strokes. In one of our activities, I somehow managed to get a piece of paint chipping off the bottom of the pool up my fingernail, a unique–and painful–souvenir. Capping things off, Janet played a lively rendition of “Take Me out to the Ballgame” on the piano in the rec center’s beautiful arched entryway, under Jackie’s watchful eye.

Lisa Lisa in the water park after swimmingThis 1936 pool is beautifully situated in Jackie Robinson Park (formerly Colonial Park), tucked at the bottom of a steep hill with greenery poking through the fencing and brickwork on three sides and city views to the fourth. Lap swimming is on the short axis in the northern two-thirds of the pool, and there wasn’t much room to spare. The water was a pleasantly refreshing temperature on this already hot morning, and the aquatics staff took a keen interest in our swim. Afterward, we enjoyed the deck-side water park and broke rules left and right in the locker room through subversive activities such as washing our hair.

No shampoo allowed!

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Not a Pool: East River

On Sunday morning I had the pleasure of swimming in the East River for the third time in my life. The first two were alongside Manhattan going with the current, which rips through at speeds up to 6 knots, making me far faster than Michael Phelps. This time, the goal was to hit the changing tide, misleadingly called “slack,” in order to have minimal interference in crossing 1 kilometer from Brooklyn to Manhattan in NYC Swim’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim.

I usually don’t go for such short open water distances, but this was the best of all worlds–a beautiful bridge acting like a giant pool wall to navigate by, and then at the end the chance to swim under the bridge. There was no staring at the structure for miles and miles and feeling like it wasn’t getting any closer and no question of where to go. On top of all this, it brought back funny Seinfeld memories of Kramer’s penchant for swimming in the East River.

I’d volunteered as a kayaker for this same race last year and felt like I had a real advantage as a result of seeing the action on the water so closely. Specifically, I knew not to let the dwindling ebb push me too far toward the Manhattan Bridge, and I knew where to cut in for the finish. Unfortunately I did not see a crab in the beautiful masonry stanchion tower as I passed by this time, but I was glad for the memory from last year. Other people reported seeing fish in the water, but I missed them. Mostly I noticed the saltiness and the temperature, which was borderline not cold enough on this muggy summer day.

This poor swim has had two near-misses in a row. Last year it almost didn’t happen due to the fire at the North River Treatment Plant, and this past Saturday there was a three-alarm fire at South Street Seaport that called everything into question, but both times the event went on unimpeded unlike several years ago, when it was flat-out canceled by the threat of Tropical Storm Hanna, who failed to materialize in NYC. I’m glad that this Hannah was able to hit the swim this year and highly recommend it for the future.

Boaters and paddlers created a safety zone to shut down all traffic on the East River during our crossing, as seen here from the post-finish area. Nice place for a swim, right?

Photos courtesy Capri (top) and John.

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#36: John Jay Park Pool

John Jay Park PoolLocation: Upper East Side, Manhattan

Configuration: 3 extra-wide lanes of 48 1/3 yards

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $166.74

John Jay Park Pool Early Bird lap swimming is my blue heaven. I love the rising sun coming across Roosevelt Island and into the pool. I love watching boats go by in the East River when I kick. I love looking down on the FDR Drive from the deck and thinking how much I’d rather be where I am than in a car oblivious to the sanctuary above. I love seeing the same pool groupies every weekday morning for two months. I love swimming in the rain, if we get so lucky. I love the way the light and the leaves change as the summer progresses. I love the morning routine of rolling out of bed and onto my bike and getting here in no time. I love gazing upon the empty pool and reveling in the anticipation of being one of the first people in every morning.

East River from the pool deck

The view from the kickboard.

I even love how much more popular the pool has become with lap swimmers in the dozen years since I started here, though I don’t love sharing the lane with so many people. I also don’t love how short the lap-swim season is, going from the day after the Fourth of July until the Friday before Labor Day on weekdays only.

I welcomed the start  of the season last Thursday together with fellow Early Birds Valerie, Didi, Margaret, William, Arion, Stephanie, Carol, Joanne, Blondelle, Orly, Bonnie, and many more. The aquatics specialists were very organized and had us off and swimming in no time. My card number–160–indicates that 159 people signed up ahead of me, remarkably. The water was a bit cloudy, no doubt due to the hot, busy holiday week, and there was more hair than I prefer in my pool, but I was still very happy to be there and have returned gladly ever since.

The pool’s length is just shy of an official competitive distance, supposedly due to the wishes of Robert Moses. He built this one with WPA money several years after the glorious summer of 1936; it’s smaller and less magnificent than those pools, but a wonderful part of the neighborhood nonetheless. Now, it’s one of just two outdoor public pools left with a diving well, which is very popular during free swim. Meanwhile, not far from the other side of the pool on this first day, someone apparently jumped into the East River, causing much helicopter action.

The namesake, John Jay, had many important roles during the Revolutionary War Era and in the new republic, including serving as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In his afterlife, he’s become a man of many pools, being the namesake of John Jay College, home of an indoor pool I frequent; a school in Brooklyn that also has a pool; and a Westchester County school that was in the same division as my high school swim team.

lap swim cardBack to lap swimming, here is a primer on the city’s program:

  • Participation is free and open to anyone age 18 or older.
  • The “Early Bird” session is weekdays 7:00-8:30 a.m. “Night Owl” is 7:00-8:30 p.m. I prefer Early Bird for the timing and also because the pool is at its cleanest after it’s had a night to air out.
  • There are many incentives for racking up yardage. If you hit 30 miles within your session (i.e., John Jay Early Bird) through the course of the season, you get invited to a dinner and get a T-shirt. If you accumulate enough yardage to be in the top three of your session (by gender), you win a trophy. There are also city-wide trophies given out for the top yardage amounts from the entire program. These are always superhuman tallies.
  • Yardage is self-reported at the end of each swim.
  • The dinner is well worth attending and usually includes speeches, synchro performances, musical entertainment, a buffet spread, a relay competition among teams from all the participating pools, and whisperings of cheating  within some yardage tallies.
  • You have to register separately at each pool you swim in. Registration consists of filling out a piece of paper for which you get a card in return (sample above). You need the card for all subsequent visits.

Helpful tips for John Jay Park Pool lap swimming:

  • As at some of the city’s indoor pools, it’s the lane lines rather than the markings on the bottom that determine the lanes. They’re quite wide here.
  • Lane designations are mainly aspirational. The “fast” lane is the one closest to the East River. The middle is the middle.
  • Pass on the inside of the lane.
  • Navigation skills are important.

Summer is short. Go swimming at an outdoor pool ASAP.

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#35: Red Hook Sol Goldman Recreation Center Pool

Red Hook Pool view from the lap area

Photo from the Parks website.

Location: Red Hook, Brooklyn

Configuration: quite a few lane-less lap lanes of 40 meters

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $166.74

The Sol Goldman Recreation Center & Pool at Red Hook Park is the best outdoor city pool for lap swimming because it has designated space for laps even outside the early bird and night owl hours. In fact, you can come swim laps here any time the pool is open for general swimming, i.e., 11:00-3:00 and 4:00-7:00 in season.

The other major draw at Red Hook is the convergence of food trucks that pre-date the food truck craze and offer delicious and inexpensive Central American fixings across the street. What could be better for more Fourth of July fun following the early start at Riverbank?

Red Hook pool entrance and rule-enforcement areaAs at all city outdoor pools, entry is free, however you have to prove your compliance with a number of rules in order to get in. Be prepared to show your lock, which had better be sturdy; your bathing suit; and, for men, your bathing suit’s mesh lining before you enter the building. If you are bringing young children, their diapers will be checked for seaworthiness. When crossing the threshold from locker room onto pool deck, you will have to shake out your towel a number of times to prove that you are not hiding contraband items such as electronic devices–notice I took no pictures here–water toys, or colored T-shirts. (Prior to making your first visit to a city pool’s general swim session, be sure to study up. Forewarned is forearmed, or in this case, unarmed.)

Having cleared these challenges, we found this 1936 WPA pool to be a delight–cool, clear, and with interesting aids to navigation such as trees, poles, and pyramids. I was especially excited to swim here because of its unconventional length: 40 meters! In honor of this special number, Piez, Lisa Lisa, John and I did a set of 40 x 40s, where we each got to choose the pattern for a few laps. My selection was patriotic freestyle: 2 laps with a 7-4 breathing pattern followed by one lap with a 12-beat kick. (7-4-12, get it?) We sometimes had to dodge other lap swimmers, given the lack of lane lines and the erratic swim habits of some of our fellow pool-goers, and we observed some interesting multi-legged aquatic life, but all of this is part of the price of admission.

If you get lucky on the pool deck, you can snag a lounge chair for sunbathing. Otherwise, there is plenty of room to spread out your towel. In fact, this abundance of space is what allows Red Hook to have unfettered lap swimming set off from the free-swim area by a no-man’s-zone. Farther north in Brooklyn, the new McCarren pool isn’t so lucky; its lap area has been consistently turned over to the general swim population that fills the pool to capacity every day.

lunch downed

Piez, Lisa Lisa, and John with the remains of our food-truck lunch.

After we had our fill of 40-meter laps, we filled up across the street with huaraches, sopas, and mystery juice. The large array of food trucks that usually come on weekends weren’t there since it was a Wednesday, so the sole truck present was lucky to get all the business of our hungry group. We were so hungry, in fact, that I forgot to take a picture of our loaded-up plates.

For those not coming by bike, Red Hook is a bit remote, however IKEA is here to help, offering a free shuttle from Downtown Brooklyn as well as ferry service. What are you waiting for?

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#34: Riverbank State Park Outdoor Pool

Andrew, Janet, John, me, and John in our Fourth of July pool party attire.

Location: West Harlem, New York

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: $3 during lap-swim hours, $2 otherwise

Fees to Date: $166.74

Riverbank’s outdoor pool opened in stealth mode last week. Signs promised its availability for the Fourth, but in fact it opened almost a week earlier, unicorn-like, as described by Andrew: “I didn’t question its existence since it was there in front of me, but can’t explain it and don’t expect to see it again.”

A little less predictable and a whole lot smaller than the indoor pool, it’s a good option on weekends and holidays when the city-run outdoor pools don’t have lap swimming. As far as I can tell, its lap-swim session usually begins a little after the adjacent indoor pool opens (6:30 a.m.) and continues until 8:30, after which there is no more lap swimming until the next morning. It lasts until Labor Day.

We found ourselves there bright and early on the Fourth of July begging the indoor-pool lifeguards to open it despite the light mist falling from the sky. The finally acquiesced with about a half-hour left during the lap session, so for the second day in a row I swore off all indoor swimming. We did some very low-key swimming outdoors after our almost-as-low-key swimming indoors.

Most of these people in this little pool party should be familiar to readers of this blog by now, but Andrew is making his first appearance. We met through his training for the recent Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and he has temporarily relocated to my neighborhood, so I expect to see a lot of him at my local outdoor pool (blog report coming soon!).

The pool’s best feature is the view from its eponymous riverbank, across the Hudson to the Palisades. Since it’s perpendicular to the shore, you get to admire the view when you’re not swimming, which suited our purposes well. The water warms up quickly on warm days due to the shallow depth–just 3′ 9″–and it may or may not be cleaner than the indoor pool. I’m not crazy about the metal walls, which are slippery to push off. One thing it had going for it on the Fourth was a lower mosquito count than indoors.

In my earlier posts about Riverbank, I didn’t get into the park’s raison d’etre. No, it is not there so I can have a cheap place to swim. Rather, it was provided as a bone to the community in exchange for what it rests upon: the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. That plant has probably done more for swimming in New York City than the pools, since it prevents a whole lot of untreated sewage from getting discharged into the Hudson, which has resulted in the water quality improving to cleanliness levels not seen in 110 years. However, it also blocks waterfront access and sometimes produces a mighty wind.

You’d think that this agreement would guarantee the park’s availability as long as the plant is still there, but unfortunately it’s funded from the same skimpy pot as other New York State parks, so cutbacks and closures are periodically threatened. Last time around, Save Riverbank mobilized to protect the park, and it’s since become a good resource for park info and swag.

Last summer, a bad fire in the plant shut down the indoor and outdoor pools during a scorching heat wave and brought things temporarily back to the way they used to be, with sewage going straight into the river. Yuck. Fortunately, the DEP made an incredible effort to get the plant back online quickly, and the effects cleared up within about a week.

Anyway, when the smell of you-know-what occasionally wafts over the roadway on the way in to Riverbank, I try to be grateful for it in lieu of the alternative–not treating the stuff. I’d take pools plus a cleaner river over neither of those things in my neighborhood any day, if only I were so lucky.

After swimming, we went to the nearby Las Americas bakery, it being an American holiday and all. The coffee received vary favorable reports, and we enjoyed various corn, cheese, and red velvet baked treats before moving on to the day’s next activities.

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Not a Pool: Lake Minnewaska

Lake Minnewaska

Thanks to Caitlin of throwmeintheocean.com for this photo.

Lake Minnewaska was a favorite daytrip in my youth. We spent many a summer afternoon floating on inner tubes and paddling all around the shore to pick blueberries growing from the rocky outcroppings that could not be reached from land. Our beloved family cat, Minnewaska (Minne for short), came from an old barn on the property.

The beautiful area achieved state-park status in the 1980s, but unfortunately this resulted in a reduction of swim opportunities. The lake that had been open for unrestricted swimming was closed entirely. Later, a tiny beach area was added, along with a rope that kept everyone penned in close to the lifeguard stand. It may have been safer, but it was a lot less fun and completely unconducive to swimming or blueberry picking.

Some determined lake swimmers who remembered the good old days banded together shortly before 2000 and worked very hard for more than two years to create more swimming opportunities. In a success that in hindsight seems both genius and impossible to live without, but that was very hard won, they formed the Minnewaska Distance Swimmers Association and got a 200-yard line anchored into the lake for certified swimmers to swim around. Within one year, they had more than 400 members, and that number has more than doubled since then. Check out the history for a blow-by-blow of what it takes to accomplish something like this (there was a “swim-in” protest!),  and send a thought of appreciation.

Thanks to MDSA, a thriving swim community has developed at this Ulster County, New York, state park. You have to complete a swim test to join initially and then renew each year by sending in a form and $20, which offsets some of the costs incurred by the administration of this all-volunteer group. Even for just one swim per year, it’s worth it.

The walk along old carriage roads to get to the beach is a treat in itself, and from the water the light-colored cliffs, blooming mountain laurel, and trees are part of the reward every time you take a breath. Though the distance swimmers’ private beach area is sometimes fairly full, there’s always plenty of room out around the lane line. The lane line has larger floats every 50 yards, making it easy to do a 200 IM or other interesting variations during the 200-yard laps.

My first visit of the season was the day before 8 Bridges stage 1, just to loosen up and make sure the goggles I’d brought would be OK for a loooong swim. Mom and I drove over in the mid-afternoon, and she walked to the beach the long way in order to check out the blueberry situation. (The lake is so enticing that it inspired Mom to take the swim test a couple years ago, but a shoulder issue prevents her from swimming right now.)

One of the best parts of visiting is running into friends, and this trip set a new bar. We saw: Carolyn from FISH Masters, Dave and Clare of 8 Bridges, Gracie (who I’d spent the day with on a boat circling Manhattan the day before and who would begin resetting the 8 Bridges record book the next day), MDSA coordinator Judy, painter of artwork in the bedroom I stay in in Poughkeepsie Tona, the mother of someone I went to high school with, Marc who I went to high school with, Willie the blueberry hunter, and possibly others I am not remembering. In other words, it’s a lot like going to the local pool, only bigger and fresher.

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