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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#102: Berkeley City Club

pool view from the shallow endLocation: Berkeley, California

Configuration: 25 yards with space for about 5 swimmers to each have their own trajectory (without lane lines)

Fee: Members and hotel guests only

It felt like a different time even then, and more so in retrospect now that we are in week four of the worldwide coronavirus lockdown. Five wonderful early spring days visiting friends and family while staying at the medieval-style Berkeley City Club. Wake up before dawn, venture downstairs for a swim in the stunning pool, replenish in the dining room over breakfast and the New York Times (in print, thank you very much), and then set out for a day’s adventure. Life at this 90-year-old “Little Castle” was wonderfully civilized but not stuffy, active but relaxing. 

Like a precious few other pools I’ve experienced, this one was designed by and for women. Architect Julia Morgan — who broke gender barriers in her studies at Cal and the École des Beaux Arts and in 1904 became California’s first licensed woman architect — “had a special knack for swimming pools, using color, light, and shape to create sumptuous designs that flaunted a hedonism startling for so modest an architect,” according to biographer Sara Holmes Boutelle (Julia Morgan, Architect, 1988). Cal’s classically inspired Hearst Pool (my #53) whetted my appetite for her work, and I dream of someday swimming in her most famous aquatic creations at Hearst Castle. Most of her other pools, whether for private homes, YWCAs, or municipalities, are no longer intact.

Julia Morgan's first floor plan PLUNGE

The “Plunge Room” at right is the club’s largest interior space. Click for the full first-floor plan. Image courtesy Berkeley City Club.

For what was originally the Berkeley Women’s City Club (single-sex from opening in 1930 until 1962), Morgan made the pool the largest space in the entire building. According to Boutelle, it was put to good use from the beginning: “The Women’s City Club took special pride in ‘waterproofing’ its members, and indeed it pioneered in having a special swimming membership at a time when no other facility in Berkeley was open year-round to women for lessons or for recreational swimming. It is clear from the plan that the 25-by-75-foot pool (labeled ‘plunge’ by the architect) was to play a major role in club activities, since it was given the entire stretch of the building’s east wing.” 

pool view from the deep endAlthough built of concrete and steel, the pool has an Old World feel thanks to leaded-glass windows, magnificent tile work, decorative arches and beams disguised to look like wood, and abundant ornamentation. Swimming here also felt a bit Old World: no lane lines or pace clock, a co-ed locker room with private changing stalls, and a clientele that skewed senior. The water circulated at a healthy rate, and it got choppy with just one swimmer churning away. The very-shallow shallow end turned out to be good prep for the Trinity School Pool. The deep end no longer meets regulations for diving, so the board was removed.

pool view from the loggia

Pool view from the loggia. This is where I would hang out and work if I were a member.

It’s worth mentioning that in addition to the hotel, there are some permanent residents here and also a club membership option that I tried talking my brother into. What a nice place this would be to have always at your disposal.

The major drawback of swimming here is that it’s indoors in a city with abundant year-round outdoor options including Cal’s Spieker Pool just a block away. I always prefer swimming en plein air, and even the garden windows (open!) and portholes here didn’t do the trick, so stay tuned my report from a different option nearby. But first, a few more images from this treasure.

whale on the bottom

Whales swim through the chop at the bottom of the pool.

seahorses as if carved into a column

Naturalistic decor predominates, including these seahorses and shells in the poolside column’s capital.

central hallway

This way from the front desk to the pool.

arches and stairway

View from the main lobby.

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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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Not a Pool: Keller Beach

Beach view toward San Rafael

DSCN2284_keller_beachI sometimes wonder whether I’m a mutant type of vampire who is enlivened by outdoor swimming. Nothing makes me feel more vital than time in the water under the bright sun. A trip to California last month provided a good dose, mostly in Temescal Pool, as each day grew increasingly sunny and warm–while the Northeast was socked in by a polar vortex. On President’s Day, the pool was closed, so we took a family trip to the beach I’d learned about from a local friend.

Point Richmond’s tiny Keller Beach is nestled into a cove of San Francisco Bay surrounded by hills at the north end of Miller Knox Regional Shoreline. Attractions include soft sand, amazing views, sea creatures, plus amenities like bathrooms and showers. No wonder the East Bay Open Water Swim group makes its home here. A Google Group helps them coordinate group swim times, and I hopped on the list in anticipation of my visit, asking hopefully for a late-morning holiday swim. A swimmer named Fred took the lead, figuring out the best time and destination given the tides.

DSCN2305

Gratuitous nephew photo–too cute to resist.

My nephew’s schedule favored an early arrival, and we had a nice time playing in the mucky sand and admiring the views of the Golden Gate straight ahead, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the north, and various islands. The open water group convened in the late morning and casually suited up for a swim south along a railroad pier to Ferry Point. If you peeked around the end, about a mile out, you could see the Bay Bridge. A cormorant out there greeted me by chirping and then diving under, as if making sure I was enjoying the water.

DSCN2309_keller_beach

You want views? How about Angel Island and the Golden Gate!

I most certainly was! Conditions were flat as a pancake, with water temperate in the high 50s and the air about 20 degrees warmer. I could see my arms pushing through the deep green bay and the bright buoys of fellow swimmers all around. Apparently the buoys faded from view on the shore, causing my young nephew to become concerned, but then we swam back into range.

Many of the swimmers are also regulars at Aquatic Park and other Bay Area venues, but they have a special fondness for this little treasure. Now I do, too.

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Not a Pool: AquaTech Alameda

breath holdingMy handsome and brilliant nephew recently added to his list of accomplishments by getting me and his mother in free to a pool! Two days shy of hitting the six-month mark, he squeaked in for a free infant swim session with his two adult buddies at AquaTech Swim School in Alameda.

While it’s true this pool is 25 yards, it’s kept at 88 degrees, making it “not a pool” in my book. However, it was perfect for the pod of infants who showed up at mid-day last Wednesday.

Little O. enjoyed being tugged around atop a large, duck-shaped float, using his limbs to splash as much as possible, and making eyes at the scantily clad babies sharing pool time with him. He didn’t fuss at all until the swim ended and he had to be stripped of his swim diaper and bathing suit. His coordination and strength have improved markedly in the short time since his last swim, and once again he made his aunt very proud.

 

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#75: UC Berkeley Strawberry Canyon Pool

Strawberry Canyon pool

Location: Berkeley, California

Configuration: 5 lanes of close to 33 1/3 yards

Fee: Free with Cal Aquatic Masters

The Strawberry Canyon Pool has eluded me for years, so I was thrilled to finally be able to check it out during my recent trip to California. It’s open in the summertime only, and I’m usually out there at other times of year. This time around, it opened for the last three days of my visit. I made it there on day 2 of its season, last Tuesday, for the evening workout with a friendly, mellow bunch of Cal Aquatic Masters swimmers. Coach Jeremy was also the team scribe who steered me to this session.

Cal’s main training pool, Spieker, had closed unexpectedly–and is still closed–due to flooding and equipment damage, and another campus pool was closed that same week for routine maintenance, so I surmised that Strawberry Canyon would be overrun. I needn’t have worried: I ended up with my very own lane and also my own locker room, since all the other swimmers who showed up were men. Some 100 years ago, there was actually a “men’s pool” here, but the lack of women during my swim was simply a coincidence.

The pool is situated up a hill from Cal’s massive football stadium in a woodsy area well-used by runners and mountain bikers. Strawberry Creek runs through its eponymous canyon and on down through campus, straddled by redwood groves.

The Pool: Gift of Lucie Stern

end of the pool

The unevenness of the lanes is most easily seen with the custom pool covers in place.

The donor, Lucie Stern, was apparently a big fan of recreational swimming, because her trust stipulated that the pool be solely for that purpose. It’s roughly Z-shaped and kept at a warm temperature, with a handful of lanes along the diagonal of the Z. Each one is slightly different in length, making serious competition impossible. (Naturally, for practice, the fastest swimmers swim in the longest lane.) The arms of the Z are purely play spaces, one deeper than the other. Grassy fields with picnic space abut two sides, allowing for terrestrial frolicking.

The sun slowly dipped behind the trees during our workout, and after the swim we put the pool to bed by tucking it under its covers. Given the odd shape, the covers had to roll out in a specific order and be placed exactly right.

changing instructionsUnderscoring the openness of this pool to newbies, a sign in the locker room provided detailed instructions for how to change into swim attire. I do wonder if anyone who didn’t already know would be attentive enough to read and heed that sign, but I followed it to a tee.

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#74: Avery Aquatic Center Belardi Pool

Belardi training pool

Belardi Pool

Location: Stanford, California

Configuration: You name it. 10 lanes x 50 meters during my workout in the Belardi Pool.

Fee: Free with Stanford Masters Swimming

Australia has met its match in Stanford University’s Avery Aquatic Center, a quartet of pools best viewed by helicopter or wide-angle video. I swam in the 50-meter-by-25-meter deepwater pool last Monday at lunchtime while Dr. Little Brother worked on campus.

It took me some time to understand the array of swim options here, so allow me to elucidate. The pool the masters team used–Belardi, at right–is the biggest, but just barely. Across the deck is another 10-lane, 50-meter pool, with the distinguishing attributes of being more shallow and just 25 yards across. That’s the Baker Pool (below right), and it was open to aqua jogging and solo lap swimming.

Meanwhile, two other pools sat idle. I could admire the 10-meter diving platform–a feat of architecture–of the Maas Diving Center during my laps. I could also see the stadium seating by the Competition Pool, where most of the high-speed action takes place in a 25-yard format. It can host springboard diving for good measure, too. It’s no coincidence that Stanford’s athletic programs are second to none.

If you were to max out the pools in short-course configurations, you could have more than 40 lap lanes under the Silicon Valley sun. Who needs 40 pools with all those options?!

Baker Pool

Baker Pool in the foreground, with Belardi Pool off yonder.

Maas Diving Center

Maas Diving Center

Competition Pool

Competition Pool

While many generous donors have contributed to making the facility so top-of-the line, including an anonymous donor who paid to renovate the team locker rooms, the Avery family is the benefactor behind much of this aquatic wonderland. However, their generosity did not stop here. They funded a new, purely recreational pool–also 50 meters–that opened on the other side of campus last fall.

The masters team was the only way in for an unaffiliated civilian such as myself, and they couldn’t have been more welcoming. In fact, workouts are free for all visitors. We had the deep, clear saltwater of Belardi Pool all to ourselves, an incredibly luxurious feeling. The coach placed me into a lane, and one of the other swimmers gave me the crucial bit of information that they space themselves out by 10 seconds, since they have so much room. For a while, it seemed that we gained a new swimmer with every two laps, but I didn’t overlap at the wall with most of those people.

With such amazing pools, the guest locker rooms were a bit of a disappointment, not least because they lacked lockers. Perhaps a donor can be cultivated to add secure storage and additional benches within this otherwise perfect facility. Meanwhile, don’t let this minor drawback keep you away.

stanford_DSCN1239

These two doors go to the exact same place.

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#73: Clarke Memorial Swim Center

Walnut Creek pool, the long wayLocation: Walnut Creek, California

Configuration: 20 x 25 yards (or 9 x 50 meters, and there’s also a 25-meter pool)

Fee: $6 drop-in

I traveled across the country for an intensive training weekend at the Clarke Memorial Swim Center several years ago. Highlights outside the pool included a nutrition workshop at a nearby store and a community pancake breakfast with the most delicious strawberry preserves I’ve ever had. There were scores of swimmers and at least a dozen coaches, and I had a great time.

The head coach of the weekend and the pool’s USMS team, Kerry O’Brien, is the namesake for USMS’s annual coaching awards. Other renowned programs here include a youth synchro team and an age group team.  They churn out records and Olympians at an alarming rate.

occupant load limitsI’m back in the Bay Area for family festivities and was happy to return to Walnut Creek for the Saturday morning USMS workout at the suggestion of Dolphin Club Swimmer Suz. Her friend Cindy transported me from the nearby BART station and filled me in on the latest pool news. Shockingly, this legendary pool and year-round community hub is under threat of closure for most of the year to help right the municipal budget.

Needless to say, swimmers and their families have rallied on behalf of their beloved pool, and it looks like the City Council may have listened, however the budget is not yet finalized. I plan to send off a note in support of the pool and hope that anyone else who has taken advantage of this facility will do the same.

The masters workout had about 10 lanes or so, with part of the pool sectioned off for synchro competitors to warm up in–although the entire pool is quite shallow. I shared a lane with two younger women who were sisters and their mother, who kindly welcomed me into their swim family. The water was lightly salty and very clear.

DSCN1232_walnut_creekIt’s hard to say whether the pool makes the community or vice versa, but it really is a special place. The facility was overflowing with people during my visit, and I had to wait a while for a spot in the shower after my swim. I was happy to enjoy the locker room chatter in the meantime (“locker room” being a misnomer for this room without lockers).

The swim complex sits in Heather Farm Park, which includes all kinds of things–lake, gardens, community center, play areas, picnic areas, tennis courts, an equestrian center, and a bike path connection. If for some reason you wanted to a non-swim activity, there are plenty of choices. Me, I’ll stick to swimming and hope that’s an option next time I’m in town.

 

 

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Not a Pool: Aquatic Park, San Francisco

Dolphin Club waterfront

Aquatic Park is one of the few places in the world that makes this New Yorker jealous. Sure, we have mile after mile of beaches, an impressive array of outdoor pools, a richly fascinating maritime history, and heaps of iconic waterfront structures, but we don’t have anything that compares to this landmark embayment. As if the opportunity to go for a quick swim in downtown San Francisco were not enough, the place is in the shadow of a chocolate factory. You’ll be taunted by a giant “Ghirardelli” sign every time you breathe or sight to the south.

What really makes this place special, though, are the rival swim and rowing clubs with clubhouses complete with saunas, showers, lockers, boat-building facilities, bars, historic photos, and a wealth of other wonders. I’d swum out of South End Rowing Club on a visit to the Bay Area a few years ago and this time was able to try the neighboring Dolphin Club.

My host was the incredible Swimmer Suz, aka the 50-year-old freshman, whom I’d been in contact with as she applied for her latest undertaking: the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. She’s been training and racing in the San Francisco Bay ever since she was a kid. When I let her know I’d be in the area to meet my new nephew (!!!), and hinted at my pool tourism proclivity, she picked right up on what I was after and whisked me into the city for an early swim on Thanksgiving Day.

South Enders, aka SERCers, were pouring back into the cove when we arrived, having just done a quick swim to, you know, Alcatraz. Nonmembers are not allowed out of the cove, and the Dolphin Club is a bit more cautious in its explorations anyway, so we contented ourselves with a circuit going to a flag buoy, then following a bulkhead, peeking out at a bridge you might have heard of called the Golden Gate, and finally making our way back to the club beach past a bunch of beautiful ships. All along the way, Suzanne stopped to greet friends and let me catch up. I even saw people I know. I mean really, can it get much better than that?

Dolphin Club clubhouse

Yup, that’s 1877, as in pre-earthquake.

The water temperature here fluctuates far less than New York’s seawater and was in the low 50s for our swim, pleasantly warmer than my last dip at Brighton Beach. With the clubhouses right by the beach there’s no worry about not being able to warm up after. The custom is to put your towel in the sauna while you take a shower (not too hot!) and then go join your towel and your swim buddies until you are toasty. It being Thanksgiving, there was much talk of pie and stuffing.

The Dolphin Club dates to 1877 and survived the 1906 earthquake that did in much of San Francisco. It’s history is fascinating and very much in evidence in the clubhouse today, both physically and spiritually. While some consider the choice of Dolphin versus South End to be a defining allegiance, passed down from generation to generation, others point to Dolphin’s more spacious women’s locker room and sauna with a view as a deciding factor. Some even join both clubs to have the best of both worlds.

I, too, would have a hard time choosing and am equally jealous of both clubs and the Aquatic Park they help to define. I hope to be back soon, especially now that I have a nephew to school.

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