40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

103 and 104: The Club at the Claremont

lounge area within poolLocation: Oakland, California

Configuration: One 25-meter pool, one 25-yard pool, plus hot tub and kiddie pool

Fee: Members and hotel guests only

Here’s a throwback Thursday look at an incredible facility in the Bay Area.

I was graciously permitted to join in a masters practice at the Claremont during a trip in February. While this hotel and club rightly boasts “rich history and elegance since 1915,” what now qualifies this post for throwback status is the facility’s temporary but lengthening closure, since late March, due to COVID-19.

north wing of the Claremont Hotel

Here’s the north wing of the hotel and, to its left, the club and spa areas I visited.

This castle-esque structure sits on a hill rising out of Oakland and Berkeley, and I’d long admired it from afar. A couple of years ago, an East Coast friend was going to be staying there right after I was in the area, so I dropped off something for her at the hotel desk and got a quick peak around the grounds. Pool coveting ensued.

For my February trip, I looked at splurging on a stay at the Claremont but dithered and the rates shot up — and I was happy to end up at the Berkeley City Club instead. The Claremont website clearly states that visitors aren’t allowed at the Club, which includes the pool, but just in case I reached out to the masters coach. After a while I received approval to join a practice on Valentine’s Day! What’s more, the workout would be coached by Suzie, a fellow open water lover I came to know years ago.

training pool

Training pool.

Thrilled that my name was on the manager’s list, I ascended Claremont Avenue and walked through the parking area to the spa. Check-in was an exercise in agreement: Would I be using the towels and locker room? Would I like a robe? Yes, yes, yes!

On Suzie’s advice, I’d arrived a bit early, so I stretched out a bit in the 25-meter pool in my own lane, of course. Over in the 25-yard pool for the masters practice, I enjoyed the company of jocular swimmers and Suzie’s technique-focused workout. Both pools were crystal clear saline, with a minor temperature variation between the two. They had digital pace clocks and plenty of gear, plus a hot tub for apres swim.

view from the pool deck

The view on the pool deck.

It’s hard to say what I liked best, but it just might be the view. From the training pool, you looked into a wooded residential area. From the deck, it was down into Berkeley and out toward San Francisco Bay. My photos don’t do any of it justice. Had I not been meeting my brother and family at a delicious bakery nearby soon after my swim, I could have easily enjoyed a long, comfy, umbrella-shaded lounge on the deck.

Months later, we have no idea when previously common activities like cross-country travel will resume, let alone indulgences like luxury resorts. Thanks for the memories.

 

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#99: MIT Zesiger Center

MIT pool - long viewLocation: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Configuration: 12 lanes of 25 yards plus diving well; 50 meters long in total

Fee: $10 day pass with non-MIT student ID, $15 day pass without student ID

A work event brought me to Boston in late September, so I seized the opportunity to try out pool #99 for a Friday night workout with MIT Tech Masters. What a good choice this was! The MIT Zesiger Center pool turned out to be the nicest indoor facility I’ve swum in on the East Coast. Opened in 2002, it still feels and looks brand new. The temperature was perfect, underwater visibility incredible, and my times faster than usual. If there had been a hot tub on deck, I’d probably still be there.

Coach Bill welcomed me to the workout, the club’s first on a Friday night since the spring. I shared a lane with just one other swimmer and somehow ended up doing about 14 laps of butterfly and 12 of breaststroke during the workout. Ouch!

The existence of a second pool (upper right) didn’t even tempt me, this one was so nice.

MIT pool artSwimming in the shallow end had the added benefit of proximity to a multipart art installation by Matthew Ritchie. The view at left, taken from the hallway outside the pool, is not as good as the one from within. Every time I breathed facing that window, I tried to figure out if it was a giant equation or other key to the universe. MIT takes its public art seriously, with a Percent-for-Art program of which this piece is just one example.

If the pool is any indication, sports facilities are taken seriously too — even though MIT is Division III. I wish schools in New York could do the same.

 

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#98: Richmond Plunge

full length of pool

Location: Richmond, California

Configuration: 8 lanes of 25 yards plus shorter shallow lanes

Fee: $6 for non-residents

I thought I’d found pool heaven at Hansborough in Harlem, but it turns out that there is an even bigger, more light-filled pool paradise across the bay from San Francisco in Richmond, California. It’s the Richmond Plunge, which I visited on a sunny September Friday morning with local pool blogger Dave, who is a regular here on weekends. What a treat!

exterior with MUNICIPAL AUDITORIUM sing

If only NYC’s Riverbank State Park had been built 70 years earlier, it might be showier, like this. The tunnel to the left leads to Keller Beach.

I’ve been unable to find an exact definition of this sense of “plunge,” but it seems to imply a cavernous, indoor, public pool built in the first half of the twentieth century, for both swimming and socializing, and situated near the California coast and likely near a train, too. The Richmond Plunge, opened in this bustling port and railroad town in 1926, ticks all these boxes. In fact, I first saw the building on my last trip to California, on the way to Keller Beach.

We had to wait a while out front for the pool to open due to a late lifeguard, something all too familiar to Riverbank swimmers a few years ago. The regulars who were gathered were reminiscent of Riverbank, too–a diverse slice of local life–making me speculate that perhaps my public pool of choice would have turned out like this if only it had been built 70 years earlier.

high ceiling above pool

How about that natural light and fresh air?

Once inside, I changed in the vintage locker room and paced the deck to fully take in the marvelous structure. The lights weren’t even turned on, all the better to appreciate the beams of sunshine streaming in from the east through windows that actually open.

The north half of the pool was set up with 8 x 25-yard lanes, and it was uncrowded enough that circle swimming wasn’t necessary. There was shorter-distance lap swimming without lane lines in the other end. The water had a silky quality due to the saline treatment system that was installed during a major renovation/rebuilding earlier this decade and is touted for its environmental sensitivity.

The San Francisco Bay Trail is adding new travel and recreational options for the area, which is part of a historic district in a town that’s seen some rough times. Anchored by this exemplary public amenity, and with a number of parks, museums, and historic sites nearby, Richmond and its plunge seem to have a bright future in store. I certainly hope to be back, especially now that my count of nearby nephews has doubled.

women's locker room windows

Simple yet classy locker rooms.

mural

This mural, based on a nearby park, was added during the recent renovation.

Hannah and Dave

Thanks to Dave for facilitating this pool visit.

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Cal Legends Aquatic Center


pool view through front door

My recent visit to the Bay Area did not include a swim in one of its newest pools, Cal Legends Aquatic Center. It’s unavailable to the likes of me, being reserved for the sole use of UC Berkeley’s renowned intercollegiate aquatics programs. The Golden Bears were constrained at the workmanlike Spieker pool, so a group of alumni up and bought the land for “more water,” had it built, and donated it to the college. How’s that for being true to your school?

I came by early on a Saturday morning to peer in through the fence at the year-old facility. The boxed-in setting is so similar to Spieker that I thought I might be in the wrong place, but the new diving tower is the giveaway. No more do Cal divers have to travel to Palo Alto to practice their high dives.

A group of women were nervously huddled on the highest platform, jumping one by one, so I’m convinced I was lucky enough to see varsity swimmers or fledgling recruits.

Meanwhile, Spieker and Cal’s other pools–Hearst, Golden Bear, and Strawberry Canyon–remain open to the rest of the community. Sources tell me that it may be possible to get into Legends if the other pools have to close unexpectedly, something not uncommon based on my experiences trying to swim at Cal, but in that case you get the water only and not the heated locker rooms and hot tub. (If any pool closures happen during my visits, I hereby plead the Fifth.)

As a staunch supporter of public education, I was glad to see that Cal beat the Cardinal team last year (in the Spieker pool no less). That said, I do find Stanford’s facility to be much more inspiring even than this new pool. Perhaps getting past the chain-link fence would change my mind.

pool view through the fence

Are those varsity swimmers up on the tower?

pool view through the fence

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#97: Sacred Heart Thornburgh Aquatics Center

empty pool

Location: Yorkville, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Fee: School affiliates or seasonal members only

There are a lot of directions this post could go: a story of parking lot turned paradise, a local neighborhood feel-good piece, a test of journalism ethics. The story I’ll focus on is that of girls’ athletics: Not once in 96 pool visits in the past five years had I been in a space designed for and dedicated to girls and young women–until now. It hit me when I looked up at the record board, an experience that proved unexpectedly moving. There was just the one set of records–no boys’ marks here–and Lia Neal‘s name was all over it.

record board

Neal attended Sacred Heart and trained at Asphalt Green while successfully shooting for her first Olympics. This Athletic and Wellness Center was a fund-raiser’s dream at the time, opening in 2014, a year after Neal graduated and left for Stanford. The commitment to supporting all aspects of girls’ growth and development is apparent everywhere, and it got me to wondering when all-female grade schools started having such impressive athletic facilities. Certainly it must be in the post-Title IX era that shares my age. Even the firm that designed this is woman-led.

lockers

Upper-level lockers so high I could barely reach.

The pool was pristine, deck space versatile, locker rooms nicely appointed and stocked well enough to rival my previous new pool, sans towels. [Spring 2018 update: shampoo/conditioner dispensers have been removed.] Despite being all but empty for the morning adult swim session–a wonderful experience for yours truly a week before outdoor pools opened–it is actually quite fully programmed by the school and other local institutions (Asphalt Green and the 92nd Street Y farm out classes here), photo shoots, rental groups, and more. At 82 degrees, a bit warm for my taste, the temperature is suitable for the many youth programs and students of all grade levels, for whom swimming is mandatory. The school’s varsity team has been crowned league champion repeatedly since getting its own pool.

Of course, Convent of the Sacred Heart has the resources for this and more. A 135-year-old Catholic girls’ school based in a mansion on Fifth Avenue, it counts Lady Gaga and a gaggle of Kennedys among its famous alumni. Its swim team competes in a rarefied league including other prestigious single-sex schools, and it has by far the nicest pool of any Manhattan private, ahem, independent, school.

The rest of us can swim there only through aquatics programs such as the “masters swim club,” aka reserved pool times for the 22-and-up set with a coach on deck some of the time. The coach was waylaid the morning I was there, as were seemingly all but two of the swimmers. In the fall, membership in this program may switch from seasonal to monthly, making it more enticing and flexible.

What of the other themes that struck me? The site used to be a parking garage; it’s a mere three short blocks from my apartment; and if you’re an aquatics director wondering if you should invite me to your pool for some free publicity, the answer is yes.

mural

Following in Lia Neal’s wake is Nicole Aarts ’16, depicted in this mural near the building entrance.

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#96: Asphalt Green Battery Park City

photo: deep end of pool as seen from behind training pool

Location: Battery Park City, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Usual fee: $35 drop-in

Asphalt Green’s Battery Park City outpost was a long time coming. The Battery Park City Authority awarded the contract back in 2006, choosing Asphalt Green’s more expensive but more lucrative proposal over that from the YMCA of Greater New York. A target opening date of 2011 was set.

photo: entrance on North End Avenue

Entrance on North End Avenue.

BPCA leadership changed, the contract negotiation was revisited, and it looked like a 2012 opening was possible . . . and then along came Sandy. The superstorm hit hard in Lower Manhattan, and this facility was one of many casualties. Subsequent repairs and politicking added more than another year to the project, which finally opened in June 2013. Battery Park TV has the complete blow-by-blow for those interested in a lesson in civics and real estate.

After all those delays, it took me another few years to finally check out the pool. My lack of enthusiasm for the Upper East Side location and the existence of an identically configured but far more affordable Stuyvesant Community Center pool two blocks away are partly to blame. Luckily, a swim meet this past Sunday evening provided an easy, social, cheaper-than-drop-in opportunity to visit this pool.

photo: windows on west side of pool

Check out all the windows in this below-grade pool. Here’s the west view looking toward the World Financial Center and through the also well-fenestrated machine room. The upper-level windows on the east side (above me as I took this picture) allow passersby on North End Avenue to gaze in.

My assessment? While it probably would have been better for the community at large if a Y had opened here, it’s better for swimmers to have another Asphalt Green-run pool. It’s just your basic six-lane, 25-yard rectangle, but the water was deliciously cool even on this very hot afternoon with the sun streaming in and dozens of swimmers churning up the water and hanging out on deck. (One complaint: no chairs.) The staff and volunteers handled the meet operations very efficiently, and the adjacent movable-bottom, warm-water pool keep the members’ little kids happy.

photo: starting blocksBest of all were the starting blocks, a feature I don’t usually review. These had large, very gently sloped platforms, a great no-slip surface, and a step on the side for ease of ascent. The backstroke holds were nice and high, too. All in all, I’m convinced these represented the latest and greatest in block design.

Unlike at the uptown location, the locker rooms do not differentiate between members and guests, meaning that there are towels, shampoo, conditioner, and other well-stocked product dispensers for all comers. You should have heard the squeals of delight in the women’s locker room as the swimmers discovered this abundance.

blurry photo: Janet and Hannah

Pool pals. Photo by TNYA member Stan.

The “pentathlon” meet, consisting of five back-to-back sprint events, was quite a departure from my long-distance comfort zone. Fortunately, Janet joined me on the heels of her recent competition in Miami in both pool and synchro events, and there were a couple other TNYA members participating as well. Looking at the heat sheets, Janet and I learned that we were both the only entrants in our respective age groups, so any thoughts of just doing the warm-up and then ducking out were replaced by the idea of “winning” all five events.

I swam them all–50s of each stroke and then a 100 individual medley–and was pleased to beat my seed times in three of the events. The fact that I missed two reassured me that I wasn’t sandbagging. The atmosphere was low-key and welcoming, and there were more than a few novices giving it a go. There was also some seriously good swimming for those paying attention. All and all, a great little event courtesy of AGUA Masters and meet director Jack Fabian.

I can’t say what it would be like during regular lap swimming here, and $35 is steep for a 25-yard box, but the light is great, the lanes are wide, and the water’s cool–and that’s a lot more than you often get at New York City pools. Plus, did I mention the free conditioner?

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#93: Community Center at Stuyvesant High School Pool

corner view of poolLocation: Battery Park City, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Fee: $15 drop-in

The elite public Stuyvesant High School moved to this location in 1992, not long before I moved to New York. It was criticized for its $150 million price tag–the highest to date for a city school–but I can assure you that none of this expense or subsequent maintenance funding was directed toward the pool locker rooms, which appear to have been installed intact from an earlier era. I’d hoped to take a picture to show you but was thwarted by the woman sitting naked on the bench scraping dead skin off her feet onto the floor. Ew.

Barcelona Olympics pace clock

Further proof of low maintenance expenditures: a pace clock with the 1992 Olympics logo.

Lisa Lisa and I visited this pool–new to both of us–two Fridays ago. We needed some fresh water due to the recent end of outdoor lap swimming in the city pools and Riverbank‘s annual post-Labor Day closure. (Its reopening, which is perhaps tied to the sighting of the new moon, has been rumored to be set for tomorrow.) Regardless, for anyone in search of a no-hassle pool for occasional use, this is a great option. In fact, if you live Downtown and like to swim in the evening, this is the perfect place. Annual membership is just $199 or less for youth, seniors, Battery Park City residents, and military personnel.

Although located within the high school, the Community Center at Stuyvesant High School is run by Battery Park City Parks. Lockers aside, they do a nice job: the water was clean, the temperature pleasant. The only thing I didn’t like was slippery metal at the walls. Some lanes were devoted to coached activity, so lap swimmers squeezed into the others with a bit of disgruntlement. (Yes, we did see another fellow Riverbank regular.) I’d hoped to arrive before sunset but missed out by a few minutes and couldn’t determine the orientation. I’d like to imagine that the water sparkles during daylight hours.

record board

None-too-shabby school records.

Posters around the pool evidenced much school spirit and a bit of confusion. Are the sports teams Penguins, Pirates, or Peglegs? Whatever their name, their records are much faster than my high school team’s.

When told that I was heading to a pool in his neighborhood, a coworker first guessed at two others: Borough of Manhattan Community College or Asphalt Green Battery Park City. Yes, it’s a bit shameful that my pool tourism has so neglected this neighborhood. On the other hand, it’s good to have more options.

locker room entry

Don’t let this sleek, clean entryway fool you. The lockers are a time capsule from decades gone by.

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Not Exactly a Pool: U.S. Winter Swimming 2016 National Championships Venue

 

Too wimpy for winter swimming myself, I asked the ever-intrepid Janet to blog about this intriguing temporary pool-ish setup in the Hudson off Manhattan. The write-up is hers, the pictures mine. I admit to a bit of jealousy of the swimmers on this beautiful sunny day but contented myself with my own memories of swimming nearby during warmer conditions.

Hudson not-quite-a-pool, with George Washington Bridge in backgroundLocation: Hudson River at Dyckman Street, Upper Manhattan, by La Marina restaurant

Configuration: 2 x 25m lanes with boat ramp entry

Fee: Varied with number of events entered

On January 30, the United States Winter Swimming Association staged its 2016 National Championships in the Hudson River. “Winter Swimming” in this context doesn’t just mean swimming in the winter. It’s distinct sport, popular in northern Europe and growing worldwide, in which set distances are contested in near-freezing water in outdoor settings.

The International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) is to the sport what FINA is to pool swimming. As a safety measure it limits the distances raced in specific temperature ranges (200 meters max for water under 2 degrees Celsius, as the Hudson was on this day). It also sanctions a full schedule of winter swimming competitions around the world. Several of the Hudson River competitors and organizers had just come from an event in China, and others were headed on to England, Sweden, and Latvia before the World Championship in Russia. (For any North American readers interested in trying out winter swimming closer to home, there’s also a competition in Vermont coming up in March!)

Over the past couple of years, I have followed the adventures of friends who travel far and wide for these events, and was always fascinated by the various venues. Many are held in frozen lakes, with a 25-meter-by-2-lane rectangle carefully cut out of ice and a lane-line strung down the middle. Sometimes platforms or walls are built at each end of this rectangle, so that swimmers have something to push off of on starts and turns. (The pool in this excellent video, taken at last year’s championships in Vermont and featuring our local legend Capri, gives a good idea of that style of outdoor pool and conveys the appeal of the sport). In these ice pools, ladders provide a means for entering and exiting the water. There are no dive starts in winter swimming, for the sake of swimmers and of everyone nearby.

Cutting a pool in the ice was not possible in the Hudson—the brackish water was not frozen, and even if by some fluke it had been, strong currents would have made swimming very far out from its banks dangerous. Instead, the organizers devised an ingenious way to have a measured course, near the shoreline where the currents were negligible, with a boat ramp used to safely enter and exit the water. The result, installed near the docks of upper Manhattan restaurant La Marina, looked like a very short open-water course: two lanes, a yellow start buoy, and orange turn-around buoys at 12.5 and 25 meters. At the beginning of the day, the river temp was measured at 34.3 degrees, and there was still some snow on the ground from the previous weekend’s record-breaking blizzard.

Janet finishing

Janet (left) finishing one of her many competitions.

For each race, two swimmers entered the water, one per lane. We waded down the boat ramp to the yellow buoy, which ranged from waist high to armpit height as the water level changed with the tidal cycle. For the 25-meter races, we swam to the first orange buoy, touched it, turned around, then swam back to finish with a touch of the yellow buoy. Races of 50 meters and longer used the far orange buoy as the turnaround point, making the course similar to a short-course-meters pool, albeit one without walls to push off or a black line to follow.

Sighting could be an important skill—the lanes were wide enough that several swimmers, including yours truly, found themselves in unexpected places due to currents or just plain crooked swimming. Occasional waves from boat wakes reminded us that we were essentially swimming pool events in an open-water venue. It was pretty cool (no pun intended) the way this event merged the two disciplines.

Six events were offered—25, 50, 100, and 200 meter freestyle, plus 25 and 50 meter breaststroke—as well as a concluding 200-meter 4-person relay. Many of us swam them all, making for a busy day.

The competition was run very efficiently, with a warm staging area inside the restaurant. We were typically sent outside with about 1 or 2 minutes left until the race ahead of us finished—just time enough to make our way down to the boat ramp and take off the outer layers before wading into the cold water. Once done we parka-ed up and hustled back inside, where warm drinks and soup awaited. Plenty of volunteers—many from the wonderful Coney Island Polar Bears, which helped put on this event—kept swimmers safe and ensured that everything ran smoothly.

What was it like, swimming in water that cold? Mostly, I felt the cold intensely while wading in, but once the “Ready go!” command was given, it just felt like swimming. During the latter half of the longest race, the 200 free, I started feeling some painful tingling in my feet, and my fingertips were a bit numb by the end. In all my races, it felt really exhilarating to have been in the water, and that feeling was shared by all the participants—I’ve never seen as many red-cheeked, exuberant people.

Warming up between events was not as difficult as I worried it might be—it was great having a warm indoor refuge so near the water. The restaurant is seasonal, so we had the run of it throughout the day, and its glassed-in portions provided good viewing for the races and plenty of places to curl up in the sunshine between icy dips.

As fun as the swimming was, the other swimmers were the highlight of the day. The winter swimming community is wonderfully friendly, and as a newcomer to the sport I felt embraced and welcomed. As evening gathered and swimming races gave way to socializing and feasting, it was heartwarming to ponder the lengths we go to do the sport we love, and to be reminded once again that the water unites us all, in whatever crazy ways we choose to swim in it.

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#84: Jones College Prep High School Pool

DSCN1599_jones_prepLocation: Printer’s Row, Chicago

Configuration: 6 lanes x 25 yards

Fee: Free as visitor with Chicago Smelts

When I collected Chicago pool recommendations, there were many great-sounding options in addition to the magnificent InterContinental. Thus, I was motivated to schedule strategically for a two-pool trip. The second choice–with thanks to former TNYA meet coach Christopher, now a Chicagoan–was a workout with my team’s Midwestern sibling, the Chicago Smelts, at the Jones College Prep High School Pool.

The pool is behind the highest windows in this new school building.

Look, up on the top floor, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a pool!

The location could not have been more convenient to my hotel, just a few short blocks away–an especially good thing when the workout starts at 5:45 a.m., less than 24 hours after my InterContinental swim. I spotted another swimmer type and followed her into the school and up the elevator to the seventh and top floor. This town gets points for building its pools up high!

Jones College Prep turns out to be one of Chicago’s top public high schools, with a new building and a pool befitting a high-performing student body. Opened at the start of the 2013 academic year, the building added capacity for this selective school. Yes, there were cost overruns, and yes the pool may be partly to blame, but that is not unusual for this type of undertaking.

The Smelts smelled opportunity with a new pool coming online and got themselves booked for regular morning workouts starting just a few weeks before my visit. Swimmers expressed happiness with the early practice options yet were surprisingly blasé about the beautiful facility. A trip or two to my team’s basement pools would add to their appreciation.

The pool? It’s got six lanes, just-right water temperature, and set-ups for all kinds of aquatics, including polo and diving. My photo does not do it justice. (Blame the not-yet-risen sun.) The locker rooms were reasonably spacious, and everything was nice and clean. Good job, Chicago!

The team was great, too. As with many USMS affiliates, visitors are welcome for a week of free workouts. A swimmer named Heidi collected my guest registration receipt on deck, steered me to the right lane, wrote the workout on the board, and proceeded to lead the lane while I hung on for dear life for the next 75 minutes. When my abs hurt the next day, it didn’t take long to realize it was from all the dolphin kicking on my back–something I’d been meaning to do more of anyway. Everyone was friendly, and I appreciated their chatter about the One Hour Swim, which I’d completed recently. Not only were Smelts members in the midst of competing, but they–again led by Heidi–were serving as “host” for the nationwide virtual competition.

After showering and bundling up, I was surprised to find students and staff streaming into the school at 7:00 a.m. New Yorkers are not such early risers, and our facilities are all but deserted at both the start and finish of our (later) morning workouts. I appreciate the Midwestern hardiness and would be happy to swim with the Smelts again and again and again if only I’d stayed in Chicago any longer.

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#83: InterContinental Chicago Pool

Location:  Magnificent Mile, Chicago

Configuration: 4 lanes of 25 yards

Cost: $27.50 including tax

If a picture is worth a thousand words, allow me to be verbose.

Photo by InterContinental Hotel.

InterContinential Pool bleachers

DSCN1585_intercontinental

Prior to a recent trip to Chicago, I’d polled the Internets for a pool recommendation. The InterContinental Health Club won out, so I wandered up at dawn last Monday to check it out. Lobby staff directed me to the fitness center, where the attendant was dubious that I’d want to pay $25 plus tax for a swim. “Go take a look,” she cautioned.

Neptune fountainUm, yeah. I gladly forked over the entry fee–not much higher than I pay to swim in a crowded basement in Manhattan–for my own lane and then some in this masterpiece of pool design. Ah, Chicago prices! The ceiling, the stained-glass windows, the arches, the Spanish tile, the terra-cotta fountain, the wrought-iron light fixtures, the rattan-filled bleachers, the sun dancing across the water, the view of the Tribune Building . . . there’s not a thing I would change.

InterContinental had the same thought when restoring it in 1990, and it looks largely the same as when it opened in 1929 as the all-male Medinah Athletic Club for the Shriners. Back then, the property included golf, shooting, and archery ranges, bowling, billiards, a track, and a gymnasium. None of these athletic facilities survives save for the pool proudly on display on the 14th floor. Over the years, Johnny Weismuller, Esther Williams, and Tennessee Williams were among the luminaries who swam here.

the cold-water faucetThe pool heaven at Hansborough and understated elegance at London Terrace came to mind as I worked through my Monday Morning Pyramid* to fully test and appreciate the water and views, but this beauty far surpasses them. It was also pleasantly uncrowded despite the pre-work hour. In fact, when I got into the easternmost lane, I had the odd sensation of disturbing a cold layer on top and swimming through occasional hot and cold pockets, as if in open water. This turned out to be because cold water was gushing in from a faucet in the deep end (above right) while warm water flowed in from underwater vents–and no one was swimming there to mix it up. I moved over once a spot opened up and eventually experienced all of the lanes, which averaged in temperature in the low 80s.

Although the bottom tiling marked five lanes, the pool was wisely roped off into just four, and my split times indicated that the length is 25 yards despite the “Junior Olympic” 25-meter distance cited on the hotel website. I particularly enjoyed backstroking under the ornate ceiling and looking out the windows while using a kickboard. It was fun to imagine the bleachers packed with bespoke spectators enjoying fancy drinks while cheering on swimmers, and to wonder who might have gotten the box-seat-like precipices.

Chicago may be Second City by some standards, but for this pool I give it top billing. I hope to have the chance to enjoy it again. Next time, I’ll ask for the secret tour to learn even more and to be sure I get my money’s worth.

*The Monday Morning Pyramid is a great way to put a pool through its paces. It had been a long time since I actually did it on a Monday, as follows (after warm-up):

DSCN1576_intercontinental150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
100 free, fast
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
2 x 100 stroke or IM
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
3 x 100 pull
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
4 x 100 kick
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
3 x 100 pull
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
2 x 100 stroke or IM
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim
100 free, fast
150 swim, drill, swim, kick, drill, swim

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