40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Pool Play

“OK, so the play was called ‘The Unicorn’ and she was the unicorn so that means that the star was my babysitter.”
–Dar Williams, “The Babysitter’s Here

Pool Play set

Last night I supported the arts and attended a drama performance in a pool! I’d heard about the production from my friend Jen, whose daughter’s babysitter was in the cast. I felt like the little girl in the Dar Williams song when said babysitter stole the show with a beautiful solo rendition of “Nightswimming,” lights dimmed and all.

Of course what we really care about is the host pool, Waterside Plaza Swim & Health Club, in the 40-year-old mini city of skyscrapers. Were it not for this play, you would not be reading about the pool here, because it is stunted in length at about 14 meters. With 8 lanes, its overall square footage is respectable, but the dimensions are wrong for lap swimming–a serious miscalculation on the part of the designers. Otherwise, it’s got a lot going for it, with East River views, poolside plants and lounge chairs, and a retractable roof. We donned ponchos and dangled our feet in the water for the 70-minute show.

A collection of skits examining people’s connections to the water, the play had both serious and lighthearted moments. My favorite scenes included water aerobics chit-chat about the foolishness of building a pool in a middle school (pay no attention, Poughkeepsie), a first-person account of segregation at public pools (true to this book reviewed here previously), and a waddle of penguins trying to muster the courage to jump in. (Having just seen the real thing in Australia, I was impressed by how realistically the actors portrayed penguins.)

Pool Play was the brainchild of a theater company that works outside traditional performance venues, and I’m glad to see this genre taking off beyond the Pink Flamingo competitions that my team often dominates. Thanks to Jen and Trudy for going with me to the show, which continues through March 8.

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Thoughts About Swimming in Australia

me with the Aussie flag towel by the fast laneI’ve been back in the New York winter for more than a month now and wanted to get down some final observations before they completely escape me. Overall, my simple advice to anyone contemplating a swim trip to Australia is go. You’ll pick up the lingo, adapt to swimming on the left, and fall in love with the swim culture in no time.

Their pools are made for swimming. Wide lanes, taught lane lines, clear markings on the bottom, built-in start blocks, backstroke flags, pace clocks, clean water . . . the pools I visited were all wonderfully suited for lap swimmers. Many even had wave-reducing gutters and competition walls. If only the lane designations (for example, “fast, no breaststroke”) were heeded by swimmers or enforced by lifeguards, it would have been just about perfect, but that breach of etiquette proved a minor nuisance given the lack of crowding.

As locals tell it, the pool movement dates to Melbourne’s winning bid to host the 1956 Olympic Games–not only Australia’s first Olympics, but the first time the Games graced the entire Southern Hemisphere. Towns across the continent embraced the spirit by building their own competition-ready pools, and when they say “Olympic-sized,” they do in fact mean 50 meters. I could have racked up many more blog-worthy pools given the time.

Sydney pool signGood design extends beyond the pool. In Sydney especially, I was impressed by the design in and around the pools. The signage and literature were consistent in look and feel and utility not only from pool to pool but throughout the whole city. I was rarely confused about where to go or how to get there (MSAC being the glaring exception), rules, or use of facilities. It was lovely. Meanwhile, water conservation is an important consideration, with pool covers, recirculation systems, cogeneration plants, and timed showers all helping to reduce energy water usage.

Which came first, the pool or the café? There is still a visible enthusiasm for building and maintaining community pools, but they sometimes seem to be just an excuse for a café. Aussies take their coffee seriously–and frequently. At beaches and pools alike, they don’t like to be far from the next cuppa joe.

Bring your own toys, and leave your lock at home. Accessories such as kickboards and pull buoys were not commonly available, so people toted their own. For a suit spinner, you’re out of luck. Meanwhile, the one thing I did bring to every pool–my combination lock–never saw use. Almost everywhere, lockers were a revenue stream that required renting a key or purchasing time via a machine. Plus, they were usually on or near the pool deck rather than in the locker change rooms. I prefer the US system on both counts.

find the lifeguardIt’s all good. People were remarkably relaxed about pool entry and use. No full-body scrubdowns as in Iceland, no full-body searches for contraband as at NYC outdoor pools, no restrictions on food, photos, or other fun activities.

The lifeguards lack chairs (and therefore weren’t sleeping and texting) and were fully attired in shorts, polo shirts, hats, shoes, and walkie-talkies–seemingly more ready to go deliver a package than dive in for a rescue. Amazingly, the beaches were staffed with volunteer lifeguard corps only, except for the pros in Bondi, and there seemed to be a lot of local fundraising for these surf rescue squads’ equipment and clubhouses.

I’ve seen a lot of superfast Aussie swimmers in my day, and I was worried about being left in the wake of the whole country, but the breadth of abilities I encountered was more or less like what I see in New York. Jo told me that swimming is no longer compulsory in the schools, so Australia’s aquatic edge may slowly start to fade.

Bondi Icebergs club and beach viewWaterfront privatization OK if it’s been going on long enough. Much as I loved the sea baths, I’m not comfortable with the practice of turning over a stretch of waterfront to a private operation that restricts access and charges admission. Shark protection may have something to do with this, but history was the stronger force. Many sea baths were built on sites used for bathing and fishing by Aborigines, and those that survived to the present became beloved landmarks for the newer settlers–excluding Aborigines until relatively recently.

Pools should be free. If I could change one thing about Australia’s outdoor pools, it would be to make them free. We are spoiled in that regard here in New York, and I’ve come to regard outdoor pool entry fees as an unfair shakedown. At the very least, I would suggest that a municipality’s pools have a standard rate and a multi-pass, sort of like mass transit, the perfect ticket for this pool-rich, tourist-heavy country.

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