40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#45: McCarren Park Pool

Location: Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Configuration: Lap swim area is a mere 8 x 25 meters despite the pool being 100 x 50 meters in parts.

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $181.74

McCarren was the pool story of the summer, the young upstart that burst onto the scene and stole all the attention from its more established, more reliable forebears. That’s how it seemed, anyway, but in reality this “new” pool is actually from that favorite year in NYC swim history, 1936, revived after sitting empty for a generation save for rock concerts. Its return to life as a pool is a happy tale of historic preservation, complete with repurposed wood from the Coney Island boardwalk, mixed with 21st-century budgetary and demographic realities.

The locals embraced the pool en masse, and not always peacefully, overwhelming the capacity and the lifeguards from day 1. That lap-swim area that you see in the lower right of the pool rendering could have been used during regular hours, à la Red Hook, if only the pool weren’t so crowded. Reinforcements were called in from NYPD, and the media spewed out a steady stories of unsportsmanlike conduct.

pool entranceGiven the plethora of pool options available in New York in the summer, I decided to let this one cool down, occupying myself in other venues nearly until the end of the season. Finally, on a day that started out at Lasker Pool in Central Park, I ventured to Brooklyn to see what all the fuss was. John joined me for the ride from Manhattan, and we met up with million-meter-man Ethan at the pool. I was happy to see two other friends also there for the night owl lap session: bike-buddy Wentworth and my swim teammate Charles.

A small army of po-po let us know that we weren’t in Kansas any more, but they cleared out along with the free-swim crowds, turning the southwestern corner of the pool over to us lap swimmers. Even though the pool is 100 meters long with two 50-meter legs, lap swimming was relegated to this small area, crowding dozens of swimmers into just 8 x 25-meter lanes. The Williamsburg Swimmers petitioned for more space, but the Parks department stood firm: only 25 meters for you this season. Given the crowding, the lanes were pretty well organized, and swimmers had better etiquette than I’ve seen at most other city pools.

Image from Gothamist.

The card I got after checking in was #2520, the highest  number in my collection. This backs up what the commissioner said that the awards dinner earlier that week: Despite being the last pool to the party, McCarren was the most popular of the whole bunch. It’s easy to see why–it sits at the border of two rapidly growing and changing neighborhoods, and it fills a crucial gap in the city’s pool network.

Plus, it’s a very uplifting place to visit, at least when it’s not at capacity. The grand entryway (above left) makes you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere special, and the locker rooms (left) and shower corridor cleverly mix plein air and privacy. Those benches are where the Coney Island boardwalk comes in. If only the lap area could be expanded next year, this will be hard to beat.

After the swim, we continued the après pool tradition of hunting out good eats, satiating ourselvs a few blocks away in Greenpoint’s at Lomzynianka. The stick-to-your-ribs Polish food was the perfect ending to our action-packed day and is every bit an enticement to return as the pool.

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Lap Swim Awards Dinner

lap swim 30th birthday cake

As if the twice-daily free outdoor lap-swim programs in more than a dozen city pools weren’t generous enough, the Parks Department throws a giant awards dinner and pool party at the end of the season. The date is usually the second-to-last Wednesday of the season, the location Hamilton Fish Pool during night owl hours. This year’s took place on August 22, and I was glad to attend with some friends who are more recent converts to the wonders of this Parks program.

Early Bird swim T-shirt and John Jay pool mug

Check out my John Jay Pool mug! Is that me swimming in the corner?

There are a few different ways to score an invitation to the dinner, and each comes with its own swag. The most certain is to swim the minimum number of miles to earn a T-shirt. This year was the 30th anniversary of the program, so the cutoff was raised from the usual 25 miles to 30 miles–and in addition to the T-shirt there were beautiful, customized pool mugs as prizes! As I explained at the start of the season, you report your lap tally to the pool staff after each swim. They keep track through an elaborate, error-prone system, so you may want to keep your own log and cross-check their tally if you are on the borderline or a stickler for accuracy.

Another way to get an invitation is to be in the top three by gender and session at your pool. For example, if you are a man with the third-highest tally at your pool’s night owl session, you would be invited to the dinner. At my pool, all the people in these categories are well above the 30-mile threshold, but at some of the less busy pools, it is possible to be on the podium even if you do not earn a T-shirt. All top-three placers get trophies, and there are also trophies for the highest tallies among all the pools.

The third way into the dinner is to swim as part of your pool’s relay. The rules on this are a little fuzzy, but if you are someone who turns in your yardage tally and who has a competitive edge, you may be chosen or be able to nominate yourself to swim in the 4 x 50m mixed relay that kicks off the dinner. As with all other categories, the top three teams get prizes–and as with all other results, your mileage may vary. Caitlin was part of the Red Hook team that was awarded first prize this year, and yet they had not even won their heat.

The Parks Department pulls out all the stops for this dinner.

After you’ve cleared the technicalities, what can you expect? An invitation in the mail, for one, and a phone call from HQ in Flushing Meadows Park to confirm that you will be attending. When you arrive, you’ll find the pool deck festooned with balloons, the dinner tables decorated with framed photos from the various participating pools, and many familiar faces. My pool’s lead aquatic specialist was there, and he reported that breakdown lasted until the wee hours of the morning–and yet there he was at the pool for the 7:00 a.m. start the next day.

If you’re swimming in a relay, you can do a few laps to warm up before the competition starts. My pool’s relay members somehow did not all know they were swimming, so we had to scramble to secure enough bathing suits and then ended up with an extra person who we farmed out to the Crotona team. Competition was strong, so rather than worrying about placement I enjoyed the opportunity to swim with an Olympian. Special guest Bobby Hackett swam legs 3 and 4 of a Parks staff relay in the same heat where I swam leg 3!

After the relays, along with a dinner buffet catered by Katz’s Deli, there is much hoopla: singing, synchro, speechifying, award presentations, and more. You may even be asked to sing along to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Pool.” Outgoing Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe led the ceremonies, and other special guests included Nancy Barthold and John Hutchins of the Parks Department, both of whom deserve great credit for the success and growth of the lap-swim program, and former commissioner Henry Stern, another pool lover.

As a special 30th-anniversary treat, there was a beautiful pool cake (see above). I waited in a long line to get a piece of that delicious pool.

All this celebration is bittersweet, however, as it signals that the season is almost over and that time is running out for outdoor pool tourism. Pools I missed out on this summer include Sunset Park (Brooklyn), Astoria (Queens), the Floating Pool (Bronx), Marcus Garvey (Manhattan), and Lyons (Staten Island), not to mention the dozens of lovely pools that don’t have lap swimming. I’m already looking forward to summer 2013.