40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

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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Other Australian Beaches and Swim Spots

Balmoral Beach Bondi Icebergs Club | Wylies Baths |
Tathra | Torquay Loch Ard Gorge | Brighton Baths

Having reported on all of the “real” swims I did in Australia, it’s now time to share some of the baths (pronounced baaths) and beaches. Although I just took leisurely dips or did quick swims at these lovely places, they would work well for training purposes and thus merit reports here. Plus, writing these up gives me a chance to claim a whole “new” ocean!

Balmoral Beach, NSW

side view of Balmoral

En route from downtown Sydney to Manly Beach by road, you pass the turnoff for this beach on Hunters Bay. I’d heard that it was very pretty, so we stopped here after our Bold and Beautiful Swim. The rumors were true; it’s a stunning crescent of fine sand spilling out into calm harbor water. From the beach, you can look out to the Sydney “Heads,” the peninsulas that mark the dramatic opening from the Pacific into Sydney Harbor.

Buoys keep boats out of the swim area, and there’s a classically designed beachfront pavilion with food and changing facilities. Walking out the aptly named Rocky Point, you can see where the beach’s shark net used to be anchored. Ahem, used to be anchored? That’s right, there is no longer a shark net here, and I’m not sure what to make of that fact.

Bondi Icebergs Club, Bondi Beach, NSW

Icebergs pools

Bondi (rhymes with fond pie) is probably Australia’s most famous beach. It’s got a factually based reality show, a professional lifeguard staff (more in a future post on how rare this is), good surfing breaks, and a hipstery vibe. Among swimmers, its claim to fame–and worldwide envy–is the Bondi Icebergs Club.

Founded in 1929 by a group of cold-water-loving swimmers, the club has grown to offer two seawater lap pools–one of them 50 meters with lane lines, both with lines on the bottom–along with change rooms, gym facilities, a sauna with an amazing view, and dining facilities. (Entry: AUD5.50) When the surf is up, as it was during our visit, the waves crash into the pool, jostling the swimmers around among lanes and creating waterfalls in the gutters.

To say it makes for a memorable swim experience is an understatement. The beachside end of the 50-meter pool was closed due to the rough conditions while we were there, so we contented ourselves with partial laps. It being the height of summer, we could not fully enjoy Icebergs traditions, but my understanding is that people relish in the joys of swim here year-round. No matter what the time of year, a swim trip to Australia simply would not be complete without a visit to Bondi.

Wylies Baths, Coogee, NSW

Wylies Baths

If you can tear yourself out of the water, I highly recommend the waterfront cliff walk from Bondi 6 kilometers south to Coogee. You’ll weave in among bays and beaches, up and down from sea level to hilltop, with each unfolding view more stunning than the last. I’m not just talking about the water views either. Flora, rock formations, and manmade structures all merit attention. There’s even a snorkel trail with underwater informational signs.

Coogee Beach, at the end of this walk, looked to me like a kinder, gentler Bondi, a comparison that extended up the hill to Wylies Baths. Open 365 days a year just like Bondi Icebergs, it has a large concrete deck, an unfinished bottom, and impressive stilt-supported boardwalks and facilities including cafe and change rooms.

Swimming here was like being in an aquarium. Fishies, fishies, more little fishies, and colorful sea urchins everywhere. I haven’t come across many of these in my travels, but their spiky appearance is sufficiently threatening that I tried to avoid putting my feet on the bottom.

As many signs and memorials point out, Wylies dates to 1907 and was built to enable the first female Olympic swimmers train. These days, the lap swimmers do their thing in the “deep” (far) end, sans markings or lane lines, going back and forth the 50-yard length. Meanwhile, the shallow side of the pool had a lot of young kids wading and playing. I’ve read that waves sometimes crash here just like we’d seen in the morning at Icebergs, but the water was flat at the time of our visit.

There’s a modest entrance fee and also a fee for the showers.

Tathra, NSW

Tathra beachThis relaxed beach town was our swim stop during the two-day drive along the coast from Sydney to Melbourne. Jo’s parents used to take her and her siblings here on summer vacations, and I could see how easy it would have been for them to rack up fun memories.

Tourist publications bill this area as the Sapphire Coast, and that’s no hyperbole. The water is an ever-so-nice, deep shade of blue with just a hint of green.

The Old Tathra Wharf, dating to the 1800s, sits several hundred meters off the beach and makes for a good swim destination. Stay close to the rocks for the best sea life views. After the swim, you’ll naturally want to fuel up at the beachside cafe.

Torquay Front Beach, Torquay, VIC

TorquayThis outdoorsy paradise sits on the Bass Strait, southwest of Melbourne, marking the start of the Great Ocean Road. If the Wednesday morning activity is any guide, Torquay (rhymes with porky) is also ground zero for triathletes in training. Everyone and their Baby Jogger seemed to be out for an early ride, run, or swim.

The really popular activity, though, is surfing. Multiple surf company headquarters, a surf museum, and plenty of waves at the back beaches are key to the local culture.

Since my visit here coincided with my birthday Eastern Standard Time, I pulled out my flowery cap for a birthday swim at the front, or bay, beach. Buoys a ways out section off the swim-only area, providing a ready-made swim course. Back on shore was a pretty stand of Norfolk pines, which used to be planted along beaches for ship masts.

As at all of these spots, it would have been nice to spend more time here, but that would have meant missing other attractions and my chance to swim in a whole new ocean.

Loch Ard Gorge, Port Campbell National Park, VIC

Loch Ard Gorge from the topAt some point during our Great Ocean Road journey, it dawned on me that we’d come to an ocean I’d never seen or swum in before. How better to round out this swim adventure than with a WHOLE NEW OCEAN?! I was scarcely able to give proper attention to the wonders we passed en route–roadway engineering miracles, beaches and more beaches, rainforest, and resort towns, to name a few.

My first glimpse of the Southern Ocean came at Johanna Beach, soon past Cape Otway, where the Pacific goes one way and the Southern the other. We then stopped at the Twelve Apostles–massive, striated limestone pillars standing in the surf that carved them. Everyone agrees that twelve is an overstatement, but the exact number is debatable, and even with fewer than a dozen this is still a very popular tourist attraction and probably the highlight of most Great Ocean Road Trips.

We saluted the apostles and then continued a short distance west to Loch Ard Gorge, where you can walk out on cliffs or take stairs down to the beach to admire the limestone cutouts from all angles. Its beach looks like it’s being embraced by giant rock arms that aren’t quite touching, leaving a narrow opening where the water flows in. Frankie and Jo had seen giant waves crashing in here before, but today’s late-afternoon surf only sent in ripples that rode up the side of the rocks all the way in. It was fun to watch, since from the beach you could barely tell when a wave was coming until it broke into the gorge.

Loch Ard monster

So, at last, my chance to swim in the Southern Ocean. (Here is where I admit that most of the world does not consider this location to be the Southern Ocean, instead designating it the eastern end of the Indian Ocean, with the Southern kicking in more to the, um, south. Australia begs to differ and deems this the northernmost flow of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. Since I was in Australia and referring to Aussie maps, that’s what I’ll go with. Either way, it’s still a new ocean for me.)

I got right in, enjoyed some waves, and even did some butterfly for good measure. Nevermind that the namesake Loch Ard is a famous shipwreck. I wish I could say that I felt the chill of polar waters, or noticed different kinds of sea creatures, but in truth the ocean pays no mind to the boundaries we assign, and it seemed pretty much the same to me. This did not in any way diminish my excitement, and I hope to someday return to the Southern Ocean for more swimming and also to make it to the Indian. (Perth, do you read me?)

Brighton Baths, Middle Brighton, VIC

backstroke in the BaaaathsMy epic swimcation wrapped up in Melbourne. We hopped from pool to pool on this last day, at the end of which Jo had one last treat in store: Brighton Baths (AUD5).

Bath houseI haven’t resolved the ethics of boxing in a rectangle of seawater and calling it your own, but this seems to be an acceptable practice in Australia (examples above)–or at least it was in 1881 when these baths were established–so I did my best to enjoy without passing judgment. It wasn’t hard, as there was a lot to enjoy here. Think landmark 1936 building (what’s up with that year and swim facilities?) remodeled to include a swank health club and gourmet restaurant overlooking a private beach and seawater pool bordered by sun decks and filled with fishies.

Jo was startled to come across a ray, and in the course of looking for it I found another; we later were told that they are trapped here. Narrower fish would have no problem swimming in and out of the bars propping up the decks, but the rays would have to be pretty clever to make their way out of what’s essentially an underwater prison.

the view toward shore

Close in to shore, I fluttered through sea grass and relived the Wylies Baths swimming-in-an-aquarium experience, minus the sea urchins. The biggest novelty here were starfish, with far more points or legs on their stars than those I’ve come across previously. The water–Port Phillip Bay–had a slightly sweet taste to it.

From the deck, you could admire the bath house, a nearby marina, and the city skyline in the distance. Meanwhile, at the far end of the enclosure, there are three backboard-type wood panels on each side, allowing for 50-meter laps with flip turns. Clever, right? Check out this image for the full dimensions. Yes, I did go under the boardwalk to check out the bars and stilts, but it didn’t strike me as a place I’d want to do laps.

Accomplished local swimmers train here regularly, and there’s an Icebergers squad taking to the water sans wetsuit year-round, surely enjoying the sauna and showers after their chilly dips. The fitness club here had by far the nicest change rooms of any I’d visited in my travels, the only hitch being that they closed at 7:00 when really it would have been nice to swim and lounge a bit longer.

Just as in New York I spend a lot of time at Brighton Beach, so could I imagine life as a Melburnian including frequent visits here. Brighton Beach: good for the soul.

sunset over the baths

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#71: Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre

indoor 50m pool

Can you find the 14 diving boards?

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Configuration: 10 lanes x 50 meters in both indoor and outdoor pools

Fee: Normally AUD7.40, but we got charged a higher rate for family fun day

MSAC, as it is known, offers just about every kind of aquatic opportunity imaginable: indoor 75-meter pool that can be configured as a 50-meter competition pool and a 25-meter diving pool with 14 diving boards, outdoor 50-meter competition pool, wave pool, water slide, a “flow rider” for practicing surfing, hydrotherapy pools, and hot tubs. Are we missing anything?

Outdoor pool

Outdoor pool with adjustable floor.

It sounds like swim paradise, but trying to get from one area to another was an exercise in frustration. Of the 71 pools I’ve visited in the past two years, none was so confounding: Locked doors, roped-off walkways, turnstiles, gates, and signs prevented you from taking a logical route from one pool to another. Making matters worse, I left my bathers  in the car (this was a day of many swims; please forgive me) so I had to make extra exit and reentry trips through this maddening morass, and it wasn’t any easier the second time. I was also disappointed that the outdoor pool’s adjustable bottom was raised to make it a wading pool for family fun, meaning we’d have to swim indoors.

entry

Don’t let this well-delineated entrance fool you. It’s a maze inside.

Some of the navigational challenges may stem from the construction history. The indoor pools opened with the rest of this massive sports facility in 1997. Turns out they weren’t enough, and in 2006 the outdoor pool and grandstand appendage was added so Melbourne could host the Commonwealth Games. That’s only part of the problem, though, as even the connections in the original structure just don’t flow right.

Once I got over my wayfinding issues and was properly attired, I enjoyed my swim. Compared to the screaming masses everywhere else, the indoor pool was blissfully free of family fun. The water was pleasantly cool and chlorinated (no salt), and the natural light much more abundant than at the similarly ginormous Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre. Frankie settled in to knock off another set of 40 x 100s, but I swam less given my delayed start and previous laps under the hot sun at the Fitzroy Pool.

wave pool and waterslide

OK, I’ll admit it, this wave pool did look like a lot of fun.

As we were finishing up, the Vicentre Aquatics squad hit the water. They were marvelous to watch, with such perfect form that they seemed to need just a few strokes per length. I especially enjoyed seeing them do starts from the blocks, for which their coach used a remote-controlled megaphone-light starter that I’ve never seen before. Theirs is another massive squad, surely rivaling Nanawading, with distance superstar Grant Hackett as one of the headliners.

If there isn’t enough in MSAC to keep you busy, simply step outside. Albert Park’s lake, cinder running paths, and grand prix racetrack are right outside and offer more respite from family fun.

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#70: Fitzroy Pool

deep end - profondaLocation: Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia

Configuration: 10 lanes of 50 meters

Fee: AUD5.20

Melbourne’s first suburb is home to one of its best pools. The Fitzroy Baths, with separate men’s and women’s pools, opened here more than 100 years ago. Today, the former women’s pool is now the kiddie pool and the men’s is a beautiful lap pool. There are wide stands and a nice grassy area for lounging, a gym, and a sauna to help fill your day.

historic sign

Reproduction broadsheet describing festivities for the 1909 opening for the summer season.

The Fitzroy Pool was the first stop on my final day in Melbourne, last Friday, a properly warm summer day that we made the most of with three different swims. This pool’s community appeal was immediately apparent. From the street-front mural to the bikes parked on deck to the people of all ages swimming, playing, and relaxing,it has legions of devoted followers. Come February, Sunday afternoons featuring free DJ music and barbecue will surely draw even more.

A couple stories give a sense of how beloved this pool is. First, the sign on the deck wall at the deep end:

DANGER DEEP WATER
AQUA PROFONDA

According to legend, it was painted in the 1950s by a well-intentioned but Italian-language-challenged pool manager to warn English and Italian speakers alike of the perils of the deep end. Alas, he left out the in acqua, making for a memorable typo that has since been replicated on the bottom of the pool (see top photo) and brought landmark status for the wall. As the Heritage Victoria website gushes, “The sign has historical significance for its associations with the post-war migration program which had such a profound impact on the Victorian community. The sign is indicative of the changing demographics of post-World War Two inner Melbourne when migrants replaced a segment of the population who moved to the outer suburbs. The sign demonstrates one way in which migrants were becoming accepted as part of the community and as such is a rare tangible example of a public acknowledgement of the cultural impact of the mass migration program. The sign is symbolic of the pool as a place where the diverse population of inner Melbourne could mingle on equal terms.” That’s quite an accomplishment for a misspelling!

aqua profonda signToday, the lettering is partly obscured by temporary buttresses propping up the wall, which was found to be in danger of collapse in a survey following a fatal collapse of another aged, Melburnian brick wall.

The second story also has to do with wrong-turned-right. In fall 1994, the pool faced sudden closure due to budgetary concerns. After a six-week occupation by community members who literally halted bulldozers, it was triumphantly reopened that December. It’s worth reading the anniversary report of the inspirational Save Our Pool campaign. (Read to the end to see a great photo of  the protester-filled pool.) Other communities have since followed suit and mobilized to save their own pools.

That’s all well and good, you’re thinking by now, but what is it like to swim here? Lovely! Clear, lightly salted water. Shimmery tiles in the deep end, matte in the shallow. With two play lanes on either side of the pool, there were still six lanes left for lap swimming, and there were never more than four people in my lane. I basked in the warmth of the midday sun knowing that it would be months before I had another outdoor pool day.

Funnily enough for such a community mainstay, the one thing lacking is a café–the only pool I came across during my entire trip that was deficient in this regard. I guess that when you have strong enough popular support, you don’t need coffee to entice people to come on in.

mural

Sustainable Transport, the pool building’s new mural, is its latest community agitation, taking a not-so-subtle stand in favor of mass transit and against a toll tunnel project.

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#69: Aqualink Nunawading

50m pool view

Location: Forest Hill, Victoria, Australia

Configuration: 8 lanes x 50 meters

Fee: AUD6

Aqualink Nunawading (pronounced NUNN-a-wadd-ing) is my Aussie hosts Jo and Frankie’s neighborhood pool. It is also where the Nunawading Swimming Club, one of Australia’s largest and most successful squads, trains.

Naturally, we checked it out the first morning we were at their house, just outside Melbourne. This was Monday, January 6, and the place was packed with kids on summer vacation. I was not sorry to be swimming indoors, as it was a cold* day, and I hadn’t packed for that kind of weather.

Aside from the good fortune of having a 50-meter pool plus play pool, gym, and café nearby, I was struck by all the geometry this pool had going on. Rectangular sound panels, swooping waves over the stands, and downward-facing red triangles for decor. In the play pool, meanwhile, a gray cloud mounted to the ceiling produced rain on demand.

entranceWith selected lanes designated for play, lessons, and aqua aerobics, just three were left for lap swimmers, so I had to share with a variety of people utilizing a variety of swim aids and styles. I’m afraid we did not see any of the elite swimmers who train here such as Leisel Jones and Brooke Hanson.

The pool was built in 1960, like many of the houses in this formerly orchard-covered area, and the facility has expanded significantly since that time. Jo remembers having to walk outdoors to get to the change rooms when she came here as a kid, but everything is under one roof now.

*Cold is relative and in this case means single-digit Celsius temperatures–unusual for this time of year. We did not experience the polar vortex that made things quite chilly in New York.

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North Sydney Olympic Pool at Night

pool and Harbour Bridge after darkI don’t usually give repeat airtime to pools, but my after-dark visit the North Sydney Harbour Pool (#64) was notable both for the beauty of the pool and the discovery of an exhibit about the pool’s history.

Here are two pictures to give you a sense of what it was like. Happily, I even had my own lane. In fact, for most of my swim, there were only two other lap swimmers–perhaps because this was the day after the party-filled New Year’s Day–and for some reason they chose to share a lane. I especially enjoyed backstroking to admire the views of the illuminated Harbour Bridge and Luna Park.

Luna Park end of the pool, all lit upAs at the Olympic Park pool, the exhibit here was a bit hidden away, in this case in a corridor behind the change rooms, and is definitely worth seeking out. You’ll find historic photos of the pool including high divers and world-class competitions. I was intrigued to learn that this facility’s similarity to some of my favorite outdoor pools in New York is more than skin deep. Just like them, as previously noted, it was built in 1936. What I didn’t realize is that it was also a Depression-relief project, creating jobs and bringing happiness to the beleaguered population. Also of note is harbour swimmers at this site, prior to the pool being built, developed the “Australian crawl” freestyle technique that is now used in competition. Be sure to seek out the exhibit when you visit for this info and lots more.

exhibit hall

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#68: Boy Charlton Pool

Boy Charlton lap pool

Location: Woolloomooloo Bay, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Configuration: 8 lanes x 50 meters

Fee: AUD6

The Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool’s brochure says exactly what I would: “Set on the shores of Woolloomooloo Bay [I just like typing that] near the Royal Botanic Gardens, this beautiful outdoor pool offers breathtaking views of Sydney Harbour and provides a tranquil environment for swimming, relaxation and socialising at the cafe.”

view from locker room level

The location has been a swimming hole for millennia according to a sign at the entrance, so perhaps this is my oldest pool? The modern-day facility was built in place of baths in 1968 and reopened after renovations in 2002. Its name comes from an Australian swimmer from Manly who broke records at this location in the 1920s en route to Olympic gold.

My swim here was the longest to date in an Aussie pool, since the training schedule of my pool buddy Frankie called for 40 x 100s with :20 seconds rest. This gave me plenty of time to drink and look around and also kicked my swimming into a higher gear than I’ve mustered otherwise. Although it was a very hot morning, the water was refreshingly cool, and the hundreds ticked by quickly. I loved the views of the docks across the bay and the skyline behind the park; you are at once in the thick of things and at a pleasant remove. The views in the water were quite nice too–this pool has the best-looking swimmers of all those I’ve visited in Sydney.

My only complaint is that the water was terribly salty–“an unpleasant mix of sea water and chlorine” as a local contact described it. I sipped freshwater from my bottle throughout the swim, but it still took most of the day before my mouth returned to normal.

caballeras

The change rooms were pleasantly breezy due to small gaps at the base and louvered walls. When on my way to the shower, I accidentally knocked my hairbrush out of my bag and before I knew it it had hit the gutter and bounced overboard into the harbor. Oops.

The salt could well have been a ploy to attract visitors to the Poolside Café for smoothies, not that it needed any tricks. Overlooking pool, bay, and gardens, and offering delicious food plus loaner sombreros, it was a lovely post-swim stop.

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#67: Prince Alfred Park Pool

view from the deep endLocation: Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Configuration: 9 lanes x 50 meters

Fee: AUD5.70

New Year’s Eve in Australia has much in common with the Fourth of July: people barbecue, look forward to fireworks, and head to pools and beaches to cool off. Thus, it amazed me that we were able to have our own 50-meter lap lane at the gorgeous, newly rehabbed Prince Alfred Park Pool right by the Central Station in downtown Sydney.

pool entryway hill

Reopened this past October, this outdoor pool has all-new change rooms, kiddie pool, and stands. The pool itself dates to 1958 but was completely refurbished. I found the whole thing to be reminiscent of the reopened-in-2012 McCarren Park Pool, only without the crowds and police.

The approach to the pool is cleverly marked by a hill of native meadow grasses that doubles as green roof for the change rooms. A cafe selling artisanal popsicles and other temptations is on the other side, right by the entrance. On the deck, rows of yellow umbrellas atop wide wood bleachers make for a bright, festive feel, and there is plenty of room to spread out. Behind the deep end, there’s a grassy area with lawn chairs and shade trees.

change roomsThe change rooms also got primo design treatment–dark wood and concrete juxtaposed with blue terrazzo stalls. Natural light pours in through a giant skylight cut into the hilltop and open-air vents, again reminding me of McCarren. Other contemporary considerations include the use of recycled stormwater in the toilets and water-saving fixtures in the showers. Alas, no lockers in here–you have to pay extra for those out on deck.

Swimming here was wonderful. The lightly chemicaled freshwater was sparkly clear and a pleasant contrast to the hot day. Two lanes accommodated playing and the rest of the pool was for us lap swimmers, which I found nothing short of miraculous on this holiday eve. In winter, sources tell me, the pool covers come off and the steam rises, making for a surreal swim experience.

Since reopening, the pool and park have won design awards. The true testament to the success was all the happy people, young and old, making the most of the summer day.

Frankie, Jo, Hannah

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#66: Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre

Location: Olympic Park, Homebush, NSW, Australia

Configuration: 10 lanes x 50 meters in competition pool

Fee: AUD7

After 65 pools, I finally got to swim in one that hosted the Olympics! The Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre complex is absolutely massive, the equivalent of putting my favorite Icelandic pool facility all under one roof. Other similarities with Laugardalslaug include a water slide, play pools, hot tubs, and a second lap pool. We focused on the competition pool, following in the strokes of greatness in the fast lane.

Before I get to the pool, though, I want to direct your attention to the true highlight: the Dive into History exhibit. We almost didn’t even see this due to its location, and I wish we’d visited here before swimming because it greatly heightened my appreciation for the pool. If your time is limited, I would go so far as to recommend visiting the exhibit in lieu of the pool.

Starting with the building of the pool and Sydney’s Olympic bid, the exhibit then covers many of the great swims and events that have taken place in the competition pool. Some things I learned:

  • The facility opened in 1994, before Sydney had secured the 2000 Olympics, and was a key factor in the awarding of the bid.
  • The competition pool, where I swam, hosted not just swimming and diving but also polo and synchronized swimming at the Olympics.
  • It’s catching up to the North Sydney Olympic Pool for records broken, boasting more than 40 world records in its waters by 2008.
  • Features that make it such a fast pool include a “wet deck” or infinity gutter system and “wave eating” lane ropes to minimize turbulence, ozone filtration and UV light-treated water to make it clear and give it a “slippery” feel, and start blocks with a raised footrest.
  • Running the Olympic aquatic events smoothly required a staff of almost 2,400.
  • Design considerations for energy efficiency include maximizing the use of natural light and localized air conditioning in the stands.
  • The seating area was built out during the Olympics to add capacity and subsequently removed after the Games.
  • Loads of large-scale international events have taken place here since, including fun-sounding Qantas Skin Meets with elimination events and a “mystery” medley and the 2002 Gay Games, which TNYA participated in.
  • My hands are considerably smaller than Michael Phelps’s and perfectly match those of Aussie butterflyer Susie O’Neill.
  • The facility is extremely popular, notching more than a million visitors on average each year.
competition pooltraining pool and play area life in the fast laneDive into History exhibition me vs. Michael Phelps Australia wins!
Another highlight after my fast-lane swim was alighting the Olympic podium at the end of the exhibition. Jo and Frankie had given me an Aussie flag towel, which seemed the perfect accessory for the occasion.

So, how was my swim? Pool-wise, I’d have to rate this as my least favorite in this country so far. It was busier than others we’ve visited, and some of the other swim tourists had a much less developed sense of pool etiquette than my own. I felt a bit like a New Yorker trying to speed walk through a crowded Times Square. The energy-efficient lighting was less than inspiring–the ceiling would have benefited from more clear sections à la Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre–and the bottom of the pool was getting discolored in spots.

The water playgrounds were extremely popular with families, so by the time of our visit late in the day the change rooms were pretty much a wreck, rivaling even Baruch‘s for grossness. As seems to be the norm in this country, you have to pay extra for a locker, and pool toys such as pull buoys and kickboards are nowhere to be found.

To get here, we took a long ferry ride west from the city center, meandering into coves and bays for stops along the way. I highly recommend this journey, both for the changing views of the famed Harbour Bridge and Opera House and to gain more appreciation for Sydneysiders’ relationship with the water. Every single building seems to be positioned to maximize water views. In look and feel, it reminded me a bit of Lake Austin, but with much more public access.

My gripes about the pool are all quite minor and a happy side effect of the fabulous other places we’ve swum. It is truly a thrill to swim in Olympic waters, and my cap is off to the designers’ foresight in creating a thriving community facility that endures long after the Games.

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Not a Pool: Manly Beach

Bold and the Beautiful 12/30 - swim start

Swim start at Manly, courtesy of the B&B blog.

While planning my time in Sydney, I was strongly advised to check out nearby Manly Beach’s Bold and Beautiful Swim Squad, which gathers at 7:00 a.m. every day for a short swim over a marine reserve to a neighboring beach. We followed this good advice on day 3, zipping out to the Manly Surf Pavilion in plenty of time.

From studying the B&B website, we knew that hundreds had been showing up daily this holiday week. The penultimate swim of the year drew a large, genial crowd. “Snorkels, fins, wetsuits, whatever it takes, everything is welcome for all of our swims,” the organizers kindly proclaim.

looking seaward

Ready to go in our new caps.

We signed in at 6:45, mugging for headshots and picking up pink caps–all free. At the appointed time, we eased our way into the water along with our new friends and headed off along the seawall. Plenty of pictures from the swim are on the blog, including us in the seaward parade in the second one.

I like to have my space in the water, so for the 750 meters across Cabbage Tree Bay to Shelly Beach, I swam far out on the ocean side of the group. The water was a lovely shade of green and quite clear, but I couldn’t see much that far out.

getting ready for part 2

Ready for the return from Shelly Beach, courtesy of the B&B blog.

At Shelly Beach, everyone exits the water and waits for the group to reassemble. This is about camaraderie and enjoying the water, not speed.

As we got ready for the return, Frankie recommended that I swim closer in to shore, for better views of the aquatic life. WOW, what a difference. I was more of a snorkler for the return trying to take in all the beautiful fish and plants.

me in the crux of a statue

Jo’s view of me and Manly beach on the return leg.

What did I see? The only creature I can identify by name is the common ray, a sand-colored ray about the size of my torso that fluttered along the bottom. The many, many other fishies included foot-long light gray ones with dark stripes, similarly sized but more oblong black ones with white eyes, colorful little blue and yellow stripy ones, a long and skinny greenish brown one with a bulging head, small flittery minnows, and plenty more. The most interesting plants were bright green bursts that undulated with the passing waves. According to a sign on the shoreside path between Manly and Shelly, there were many other things in the water too, begging future exploration.

I got so wrapped up in the scenery that I very nearly swam straight into some rocks, but fortunately I noticed them in the nick of time. There I am at right waving to Jo, who was perfectly positioned in view of a sculpture.

What do the fish think of this strange human migration that occurs at the same time every day, I wonder. Do we look like different species to them depending on our swim attire and strokes?

Having already completed an incredible swim by 7:45 a.m., we now found ourselves on a beautiful beach that was coming to life with exercisers and sun bathers, many sporting MANLY attire that made me smile. We claimed a patch of sand to stretch out on, enjoying watching the nippers paddle out on their boogie boards, ride the waves in, and then run back out to do it again and again.

In order to make the early start time, we had to drive out to Manly. The more traditional way to get there is by ferry. To complete the experience and have another go at this beautiful patch of water, we will squeeze in a return visit by boat. The downside of that, of course, is missing the B&B Swim, but at least we are now on the official list.

Manly from the main drag

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