40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Pool Power

sign: pool open until Sept. 11Attention, attention: Report to your nearest outdoor pool immediately. The Parks Department extended the outdoor pool season by a week–until Sunday, September 11–at all the big pools! Designated lap swim sessions ended last week, but many pools are empty enough for unimpeded laps during the regular hours. Enjoy!

As you soak in the ambiance, here is some food for thought. It is back-to-school season, after all.

  1. In Iceland, there are pool anthropologists who travel across the country to study pools for academic purposes. Many of their beautiful selections overlap with my own, but I clearly need to make a return trip–and consider a career change.
  2. In Australia, pools are so important to the national culture that they are the basis of the country’s Venice Architecture Biennale pavilion. Another return trip and career change possibility.
  3. It’s not just architects who are inspired by pools. Check out these artist-designed pool experiences. LA is now on my travel list as well.
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SPF16: NYC Pools and Beaches in Contemporary Photography

Suddenly it’s summer! Beaches are open. Outdoor pools open next Wednesday, June 29. Outdoor lap swimming starts the following Tuesday, July 5. Even Olympic Trials are about to begin.

Just in time for the season comes a Parks-produced exhibit of photos taken at local public pools and beaches. SPF16: NYC Pools and Beaches in Contemporary Photography is on view, free as the pools and beaches themselves, until August 26 in the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park. Hours are inconvenient for workin’ folk, though: 9:00-5:00 Monday-Friday only.

Do yourself a favor and make the effort to visit the show. This teaser of images courtesy of Slate is fantastic but does not do it justice. The dozen artists included have wonderfully diverse subject matter, formats, and compositions, reflecting the vibrant diversity of the city’s aquatic culture. “Contemporary” in this context stretches back to 1983 South Beach, Staten Island (Christine Osinski), and up to 2014 helicopter views of Brooklyn’s Coney Island and McCarren Park Pool (Tobias Hutzler).

My favorites include Juliana Beasley’s colorful prints of everyday people of a certain age going about their business by the beach in Queens (easily mistaken for my beloved Brighton Beach) and Wayne Lawrence’s large close-up of a man looking resolutely into the camera while holding two equally steadfast girls (his daughters?) in the water at Orchard Beach. Each artist’s approach is different, and taken together their work embodies the multifaceted beauty and endless inspiration these public facilities offer. My only complaint is that it’s not lots bigger.

exhibit postcard with Tobias Hutzler view of McCarren Park Pool

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Poolside Reading: Swimming Studies

Swimming Studies: coverI was slow to take to Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press, 2012; hardcover, 320 pages), choosing not to seek it out after positive reviews that somehow didn’t grab me. I accepted a loaner copy from Joe at the beach, though, and found it very engaging once I finally got around to reading it.

This “collection of autobiographical sketches” in prose and images taught me some interesting things, such as about lane-line color patterns. It provides insights into the training and habits of a once top-level, teen-aged Canadian breaststroker–the author. She continues to swim regularly and now is a professional artist and writer whose work turns up frequently in T: The New York Times Style Magazine. She lives in New York, but I don’t think we’ve ever crossed paths.

We’ve swum in many of the same pools, though, from New York to Iceland. Whereas I seem to come away with memories of the actual swim experience, pool history, and architecture, her recollection is much more sensory, from the swim suit she was wearing to the shape of the water.

For example:

Astoria Park Pool, Queens

Astoria Pool, as painted by Shapton

Swimming Studies

loooong pool

40 Pools

Laugardalslaug, Iceland

Shapton's view of Laugardalslaug

Swimming Studies

Laugardalslaug key elements labeled

40 Pools

It’s a good reminder of how different two people’s impressions of the same experience can be.

That said, the book really is an experience. I won’t colors yours further except by encouraging you to seek it out.

 

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Outdoor Season Preview

New York City’s outdoor pools open on Saturday. I’m looking forward to many of the same treats as last summer: home base at Thomas Jefferson Park Pool, omnipresent lap lanes and weekend food trucks in Red Hook, occasional social swims at Lasker Pool in Central Park, which was green earlier in the week but is enticingly blue now. I prefer early bird lap swim (starting July 6, 2015), and at other times I triple check that I have my lock so as to not get turned away by the pool staff. I can’t stress enough the importance of adhering to the Parks pool rules.
view to the High Bridge water tower
plaque about poolSo what’s new this season? A new way to get to Highbridge Park Pool, for one. New York City’s oldest bridge–built as an aqueduct in the mid-nineteenth century–the High Bridge is also the newest byway for pedestrians and cyclists, having just reopened after being off limits for more than 40 years. It’s beautiful and sure to help many Bronxites get to the pool in Manhattan. I’ve been turned away at Highbridge Park Pool due to arriving too close to closing time, and in fact I was also shooed off the bridge before closing time the other night, but I’ll try again this summer. I at least managed to visit the splashy Splash House (and meet the rec center’s orange tabby mouser-in-chief) during Open House New York last fall.

I thought we might have a longer pool season to celebrate, but it’s looking like just the beach season will be extended until mid-September. The beaches already open more than a month before the pools, so this change heightens the disparity. It’s too bad. I’ve certainly been known to swim at “closed” beaches, but a drained pool is a no-go.

Meanwhile, pools have been in the news of late due to a yet another racially charged, overpoliced situation in Texas. Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters documents the changing norms around pool use and shows how pool segregation became completely commonplace, setting the stage for exactly this type of incident. One of this blog’s followers also recommends a children’s book relating to pool discrimination experienced by Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds, and I plan to check that out.

Mindful of this troubled history and the contemporary situation, what can we do to ensure that pools are welcoming to all? Use them! While there, be sure to thank the staff, politely heed the regulations (provided they are reasonable and fairly enforced), and swim with, play with, and chat with people whose skin color is different from your own.


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Rest Break: International Swimming Hall of Fame

The 50-year-old International Swimming Hall omuseum buildingf Fame has long been a must for any visit to Fort Lauderdale. Aquatics are on a pedestal in this collection that is part historic, part fine art, and part kitsch. John and I explored the museum the day after his birthday swim.

ISHOF entry ticket for twoThere are many points of entry to the collections. Whether you are interested in competition and records across all aquatics disciplines, swim technology and gear, civil rights, gender equality, swim history, notable figures, fine art, or memorabilia, you will find plenty to enjoy here. One of my favorite Ederle displaydisplays includes Gertrude Ederle’s self-fashioned bikini and memorabilia from her return to New York after her record-breaking swim across the English Channel. Videos of great moments in Olympic competition are always fun to watch, too.

If I were to make any suggestions, it would be to add modernizations such as video touch screens and an interactive database of Hall of Fame inductees, especially to engage with all the young swimmers who find their way here. A bit more selectivity in what makes it onto display would also help. (USMS pin collection: I’d nix you.) Finally, the “international” angle feels half-baked. Why not be an unabashed booster of U.S. swimming?

Unfortunately, Fort Lauderdale has become disenamored of this trove, so the Hall is being wooed across the country to Santa Clara, California, where it may set up in temporary quarters as soon as this summer. During my visit back in March, it seemed that a decision on when to pull the plug was imminent, but nothing is set as of yet, and there are still some working to keep the collection in Fort Lauderdale. The loss would be not just Florida’s but the whole East Coast’s, as the balance of power in swimming tips ever westward.

sandwich board

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#85 and 86: Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex

original pool, diving tower, and Hall of FameLocation: Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida

Configuration: 2 50-meter pools, one set up long course with 10 lanes, the other short course (25) yards with 20 lanes

Fee: $5 nonresident day pass

Fort Lauderdale is where I crossed the line from recreational pool user to addict. It took multiple exposures for the addiction to set in, and now the responsible pools are endangered, a troublesome development for this junkie.

My first visit here was inauspicious. It was January 1993, and my college team drove down in a van from Connecticut, leaving behind our new 50-meter indoor pool to cram workouts into a single lane alongside dozens of other northeastern teams. We stayed somewhere inland, equally crowded, and had to jog to and from the pool complex. I don’t remember much else about the trip except toasting my 21st birthday at the Elbo Room. Driving, running, cramped swim conditions, and an infamous beach bar–not much to like there.

You know you're at swim camp when your hotel room looks like this.

You know you’re at Swim Camp when your hotel room looks like this (2007).

Fort Lauderdale redeemed itself on my second visit, in 2007, for my team’s annual Swim Camp. Wisely avoiding the crush of collegiate teams, TNYA plans its camp for early spring, when the cold in New York has gone on far too long and Florida is all but guaranteed to be warm and sunny. We took over a full pool for some workouts and joined in with the Fort Lauderdale team for others, practicing twice per day and leaving ample time for eating, socializing, and lazing on the beach. It was bliss, solidifying many friendships and setting me up for a great summer of open water. Ever since then, pretty much all I’ve wanted to do is swim outdoors.

The next year was more of the same, but with three practices a day since my addiction had festered and I was training for the Manhattan swim. Two other people on the trip were, too, and we’d have a whole pool to ourselves as the sun came up over the ocean, silhouetting the palm trees visible out front. I was so focused that I doubt I traveled more than a quarter-mile from the pool except during an ocean swim. The pool, the smoothie place, the pool, the breakfast place, the beach, the pool, the Greek place, repeat.

Since then, my schedule has unfortunately precluded a repeat trip with TNYA. One year, Piezy and I found a different camp at a different  pool that worked with our schedules, so we spent a week swimming and biking through other parts of Fort Lauderdale with some beach visits thrown in. Once again, a fantastic trip. Other years, I’ve gone farther afield in search of fixes–Walnut Creek, Panama City, Australia–but have always craved a return to the simple, swim-centric life in Fort Lauderdale.

The place that facilitated my obsession–then the Swimming Hall of Fame, now the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex–is on life support. As I write, TNYA’s Swim Camp is taking place in Miami for the first time due to constant threats of closure at Fort Lauderdale. Once again, the timing wasn’t good for me anyway, so I was extra glad to make a trip two weekends ago for my friend John’s birthday. He and I have shared many swim and bike adventures, but his job has taken him out of New York, and I was glad to have the chance to catch up.

the view from the west
With that long-winded lead-up, let me tell you about the pools. Not since Stanford had I seen so much sparkling pool water. The complex has two deep-water 50-meter lap pools perpendicular to each other with a diving pool off the end to the west (in the foreground, above). Although I’ve seen different configurations previously, the present lane setup is all east-west: short-course yards in one pool and long-course meters in the other. Visible from the whole complex, not to mention from the Intracoastal Waterway and the Las Olas Bridge, is a gigantic digital clock, perfectly synched with smaller digital clocks at strategic poolside locations. A giant set of bleachers along the north side makes clear that competitions here can draw an audience, however, the bleachers were condemned in 2011 and are blocked off.

Me and John after the big birthday swim. Are these people really in their 40s?!

Me and John after his birthday swim, looking not a day over 39.

John chose to celebrate his entry into Club 40 by swimming for four-plus hours under the blazing sun in the west pool. He churned out 40 reps of 400 long-course meters while I did a mix of 350s and 300s on the same interval. This being Florida, we each had our own lane the entire time, and when John’s sister and another friend joined us, they got their own lanes. In between reps, I was able to watch some synchro diving practice over yonder.

Approaching 50 years old, the pool has some rough patches. Its lanes are narrow by today’s standards, and there are no infinity gutters, super-high dive towers, or other now-common enhancements. As I tired, I actually hallucinated that some of the blobs of exposed concrete on the bottom were creatures swimming into my lane. (I thought I hallucinated the smell of donuts, too, but that turned out to be legit, wafting over from brunch at the restaurant next door.) I am unsure of the purpose of the weighted cones lurking underwater. John felt currents from the vents, and I’d like to be able to blame them for my occasional run-ins with the lane line, but it’s more likely that faulty technique and a propensity to circle swim were to blame.

short-course poolThe next day we returned for a less taxing swim, and I opted for the other pool for the sake of this blog. It is closer to the street and set up with an endless array of lanes the short, 25-yard way across. The water was ever so slightly cooler in that one, although it’s supposed to be the other way around. Not only did I have my own lane, but I was several lanes away from any other swimmer.

After both swims, I luxuriated in the on-deck shower and then changed in the spacious locker rooms. Though worn, the rows of lockers, sinks, and showers attest to the numbers of swimmers this place can support.

How did this pool paradise come about? Its predecessor was the 50-meter Las Olas Beach and Casino Pool, saltwater, built in 1928 a a short distance north. Soon discovered by northern swim coaches, it became such a popular training and competition destination that it is credited with (or blamed for) starting the Spring Break phenomenon. In the 1960s, that pool was demolished to make way for new development, so a new pool and swim museum were built on nearby public land/infill. The complex expanded to its current configuration in the early 1990s with the second training pool and distinctive, wave-shaped edifice added then. Originally run together as the nonprofit International Swimming Hall of Fame, the pools are now managed by the municipality while the museum remains distinct. (More on the museum in a future post, and in the meantime see its comprehensive history of the complex.)

record boardThe one-time prominence of the facility is clear–see the record board boasting the likes of Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, picture the bleachers filled with crowds, the results on display on the giant clock, the light towers keeping the action going long after dark. However, its age is apparent, too. I love that the spots in Fort Lauderdale I got to know in 2007 are almost all still alive, but the reality is that the city and southern Florida have changed tremendously since the 1960s and even since the 2000s. Yachting has become a mega business, and 50-meter pools are no longer a commodity. There is a contingent that would love to get out of the pool business and have a giant parking lot and expanded marina instead.

the clock from Las Olas Bridge

The pace clock, peeking out among the yachts, is readable from far beyond the pool.

Gloom-and-doom predictions of closure have grown stronger the past few years. Everyone agrees that new construction will be expensive, but there are gaping differences of opinion regarding what exactly should be constructed, how much it will cost, how much the city can afford, and whether the deed requires a pool on site. (Diving pool on top of parking garage, anyone?) The museum, meanwhile, has found a welcoming new home in Santa Clara, California, but its moving date remains elusive. When John and I visited, there was much anticipation of a meeting that was scheduled for the day after I left, however, I can’t seem to find any reports of the outcome.

All this to say, you should probably visit the pool soon. No matter how nice any replacement pool may be, it won’t have the authenticity of the place that made me the addict I am today.

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Henri Matisse’s Swimming Pool

The Swimming Pool in Matisse’s dining room at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1953. Photo: Hélène Adant. © Centre Pompidou – MnamCci – Bibliothèque Kandinsky. From MoMA website.

At Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, the exhibition on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), sublime modern art translates into pure pool joyousness. One of Matisse’s most significant and popular cut-outs, and the focus of a major art conservation effort that sparked the show, The Swimming Pool is on display for the first time in 20 years. Swim, don’t walk, to see it.

Following his surgery for cancer in 1941, the French artist and master of modern art Henri Matisse (1869-1954) turned to colorfully painted, cut paper as his primary artistic medium. Using a process he called “painting with scissors,” he cut out plant, animal, human, and abstract forms in a variety sizes, arranging them in compositions featuring vibrant color contrasts and a pared-down, decorative approach. The exhibition includes over 100 works of art and provides new insight into this important area of his art work.

The Swimming Pool (late summer 1952) was inspired by Matisse’s visit to–as noted in the exhibition’s description–a “favorite pool” in Cannes, France, where he went to study divers. According to the exhibition catalog, this appears to be the pool at the Palm Beach Hotel in Cannes, a MoMA librarian and swimming fan has helpfully determined.

Unable to endure the summer heat, he returned home and announced: “I will make my own pool.” In his dining room at the Hôtel Régina in Nice he had his assistant place a band of white paper, about 70 cm wide, at eye level, along the tan burlap walls of the room. Over the next several weeks, he cut out swimmers, divers, sea creatures, and other shapes from paper painted ultramarine blue, arranging these forms within and outside the paper’s boundaries. The diving, swimming, flipping, and turning water-colored forms against the white background create an interplay of positive and negative space making swimmer and water interchangeable. The dynamic relationships between the graceful forms cut and placed by Matisse (with the help of his assistant) evoke the essence of waterborne movement in a swimming pool on a bright summer day.

Acquired by the museum in 1975, and first displayed in 1977, the monumental, 50-foot-long work has been re-installed in a special room in the museum, allowing the viewer to experience it as the artist did in his dining room in Nice. Entering the sanctuary of The Swimming Pool and taking in the surrounding scene of bodies moving in water that plays out along the four walls is both meditative and exhilarating. The environment and the subject matter re-create in the imagination the experience of swimming in an actual pool.

When Matisse said “I will make my own pool,” he spoke for anyone who decides for him- or herself to do something creative, meaningful, or challenging. Every swimmer will relate to this, I think.

Information on timed tickets (required), admission, and museum hours are available on MoMA’s website. The exhibition runs until February 8, 2015.

Thanks to devoted reader and pool enthusiast Zoe for this contribution. –Hannah

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Swim Flick: Touch the Wall

What’s better than a holiday weekend? A holiday weekend with a new swim movie!

There are a lot of reasons to recommend the documentary Touch the Wallwhich opened today. Star Missy Franklin is a joy to watch in and out of the water. Franklin’s family and coaches are wonderfully grounded and supportive. The underwater swim footage is mesmerizing. Older teammate and training partner Kara Lynn Joyce adds a different dimension as she pursues her third Olympics. The story of two champion female athletes who are both friends and competitors is rare in popular media. The theme of loving what you do comes through loud and clear. CA, sitting on one side of me, especially appreciated the dialogue with and insights from the coaches. For Jen, on the other side, the film brought to mind the antics of her daughters.

But you come here for pools, and that is yet another reason to check out this film about the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. How many places does an aspiring Olympian train and compete? It takes four continents to answer that question.

Franklin’s suburban Denver hometown pool looks like Anypool, USA. It’s packed to the gills with age-groupers no matter the hour–they don’t get the most convenient time slots–and they love it. Her high school pool is a little nicer but certainly does not scream world champion. The pools get better when she starts competing at the highest level: training camp in Brisbane, Australia; world championships in Shanghai, China. Success in those venues leads to an intense schedule of pool tourism. Long-course beauties in Palo Alto, Charlotte, Austin, the Florida Keys, and Indianapolis are on the circuit before the Olympic Trials. My favorite? The Keys–both for the pool and the open water swims with dolphins, where the highly evolved aquatic Homo sapiens and cetaceans are at times nearly indistinguishable.

The 2012 Olympic Trials, held in a pop-up pool in Omaha, was full of pyrotechnics both literally and figuratively. From there, eastern Tennessee and Vichy, France, are the final training grounds before the Olympic competition at the London Aquatics Centre. The pools and waterslide that star in USA Swimming’s “Call Me Maybe” video–Franklin’s directorial debut–are in Vichy.

Franklin could have written her ticket to any college team or pro contract before reaching legal age. Further proving that she’s an independent thinker, she chose Cal and its workmanlike Spieker Pool for her collegiate career while many of her teammates headed to snazzy Stanford.

At 1:48, the film is longer than I generally opt for, and at moments I thought it would have been stronger with a focus on Franklin alone. But that wouldn’t have been the real story, and I ended up grateful for the dueling narratives and definitions of success.

I’d like to know more about how the filmmakers started working with Franklin when she was just 14 years old, and how the narrative arc took shape. Their website isn’t fully fleshed out, so maybe these answers are coming. In the meantime, grab your swim buddies and race to the theater for this one-week engagement.

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Poolside Reading: Fighting the Current

Fighting the Current coverIf you are seeking a good book to help pass the cold, dark days, or wondering about holiday gifts for your favorite swimmers, I present to you a suggestion. Lisa Bier’s Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870-1926 (MacFarland, 2011; paperback, 220 pages) gives the story behind the story of the famous swim accomplishments of the 1920s, most notably Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking, stereotype-smashing English Channel crossing.

My knowledge of open water swim history has progressed in reverse order. When I took to the Hudson in the early 2000s, I knew that I was part of a wave of swimmers enjoying less-toxic waters thanks to the Clean Water Act. A swim buddy lent me Diana Nyad’s Other Shores, and from that I learned about training sans goggles and the 1970s marathon swim scene. Like Nyad, I was unaware of her forebears. A trio of new works published during my own marathon swim heyday enlightened me: Tim Dahlberg’s America’s Girl, Glenn Stout’s Young Woman and the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Gavin Mortimer’s The Great Swim. All paint a rich picture of the 1920s and its leading swimmers, particularly the women. Reading these, you realize how sidelined our sport has become.

Like all great historical movements and figures, Ederle and the 1920s swim craze did not emerge from a vacuum. Bier’s book fills in the backstory. Our great city, I learned, was at the forefront of men’s and women’s swimming for more than 50 years, both in the pool and in open water. Bath houses, floating baths, and Ys (both Christian and Jewish) are all part of the story, evolving along with the fashions and “swim costumes” of the times. New Yorkers were swimming under the Brooklyn Bridge, down the Hudson, through Hell Gate, and off Staten Island in droves during the early 20th century, charting courses we are rediscovering today. Organizations supported first water safety and then competition, building an audience and a field for the eventual Olympic debut of women’s swimming.

Bier presents a trove of stories and photos that bring to life the camaraderie, rivalries, and intrepidness of this bygone era. We owe these pioneering swimmers–and her–our admiration and gratitude. We’ve come a long way, and yet we still have plenty to learn from looking back.

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NYC Swim’s Last Summer

Me jumping off ferry boat in New York Harbor.

2006 Governors Island Swim plunge. Photo by David Nager.

At the start of this season, open water swim organization NYC Swim announced that this would be its last full summer of events. The announcement–which I helped write–is decidedly mixed for me, being one of its biggest fans and busiest workers.

I’ve swum and kayaked in every single event these past several years, and I love them all. The swimmer’s view of our great city is unique and eye-opening; it’s given me an education in topics ranging from tidal cycles to combined sewer overflows to women’s sports history. Open water training has also lent new purpose to days spent at the beach, leading to deep friendships with those who luxuriate in the same. I’ve come into contact with like-minded people from all over the world, and I’ve tackled challenges that I never even knew existed. The fact that I’ve swum around Manhattan still makes me smile almost every time I cross a bridge off the island. I truly can’t imagine what my life would be like without NYC Swim.

Just another chilly day at the beach. Photo by Richard Peterson.

As our water gets cleaner, more and more people awaken to the possibilities of our archipelago city. Ruminations about swimming to, or around, various islands in our vicinity are now commonplace. Some of the people I’m lucky to call my friends have pioneered not just new swim courses and records, but marathon-swim safety gear, training techniques, culinary creations, and community-building tools.

My work with NYC Swim also helped me identify professional strengths, leading to a search for more fulfilling full-time work. This transition that took years but recently paid off.

Meanwhile, a lot of thankless work is involved. I’m on the front end–the tip of the iceberg–helping swimmers and volunteers get registered and to the right place at the right time. Qualification requirements, event-day logistics, and Monday morning quarterbacking are some of the areas for which I’ve responded to far too many e-mails to count. As swimming in New York Harbor becomes less of a novelty, the overall level of appreciation goes down. People join us to check off an item on their bucket list rather than to enjoy the experience in and of itself, ignorant of the variables inherent and the fact that sometimes, Mother Nature wins.

The increasing popularity of the waterfront also adds to the challenges for event organizers. Areas that once felt like our own private domains are now so full of life that we can no longer squeeze in. Restaurants, kayak clubs, bike paths, ferry docks, parks, and beaches all compete for the waterfront, both physically and bureaucratically. Storms roll through without regard to our plans and our facilities.

Just like everything in New York, costs are on the rise, and somehow our ranks of volunteers have not been replenished with youngsters. The lack of economic reward and growing time commitment take their toll–and if I feel this way after “only” eight years, I am sure it is even more acute for those who have been involved longer.

Plans for future seasons still remain to be decided. I’m not convinced this is really the last summer, but I’m relieved that for those of us who are most entrenched, our separate conclusions are the same–we need a break. Most of all, I’m grateful to have been along for the ride. Even when I’m off-duty, I’ll be in the water.

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