40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Oh, What a Beautiful City!

A friend came across this gem of a video set at Hamilton Fish, a gem of a pool on the Lower East Side. I implore you to watch it and then watch it again, because it’s just as good the second time, music and all.

Years ago I saw a longer treatment of the same place, called The Pool, that explores a different day in its life (sans cell phone promo). It’s a good one too, if  you ever get a chance to see it. Differences among people from all walks of life all melt away when they are together enjoying the water.

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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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#88: Tony Dapolito Recreation Center Outdoor Pool

Village street scapeLocation: Greenwich Village, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 striped 50-foot “lanes”

Fee: Free

I never expected to like the Tony Dapolito Outdoor Pool. Known for being short and crowded, the pool attracted my visit two Fridays ago solely by virtue of its participation in the city’s Early Bird lap swim program–and only after I’d exhausted the rest of the list.

I was in for a pleasant surprise: I thoroughly enjoyed my swim, the company, and the sense of a New York from yesteryear. Tucked so snugly in to a Greenwich Village block that it almost feels like a backyard pool, Dapolito is an old school treasure. Despite its location in one of New York’s most desirable neighborhoods, there’s nothing fancy or pretentious about it. What’s more, I felt like a youngster among the small crowd of chlorine addicts.

Keith Haring mural

Lap swimmers swim the short way across, each in his or her own invisible “lane,” gazing upon the 1987 Keith Haring mural at entry and when resting. I loved the colors and sense of whimsy in this large work along the western edge. As the morning progressed, the sun lit up splotches and eventually the whole thing.

Ellen, Hannah, Dapolito entrance

Ellen and I await the magical swim time.

Ellen–who swims here every morning and then hits Asser Levy at the end of the day–was my Dapolito mensch, providing encouragement and patient answers to my countless questions in the week leading up to the swim. She advised arriving well before 7:00 a.m., wearing my swim suit under clothes that can be ripped off in an instant, tucking my swim cap into my top, and nonchalantly hustling through the locker rooms and out to the desk once the doors open. I followed her instructions to a T

The rat race, as she calls it, is for a spot in one of the 6 black-line-marked “lanes,” which you can either swim on top of or in between, meaning there are about 13 of these highly desirable slots. (If this sounds like a recipe for collisions, it is.) Those not early or quick enough can swim sans black lines in the shallow end of the pool or across the diving well if there is enough demand. That’s right, this is one of the few city pools that still has diving.

We waited about 20 minutes out front before the pool opened. It was nice to catch up with Ellen and also meet the reigning champion of NYC lap swimming. My stress from the hustle dissipated a few laps in–yes, I got a spot among the black lines, with belated apologies to any regular I may have displaced–when I realized how fun it was to rack up laps at such a clip. Dapolito is a great place to work on turns and streamlining, since you have so many opportunities to push off the wall. I got down to seven strokes per length and knocked off 200 laps in what seemed like no time.

Although it’s tiny, this pool has WPA origins just like many of my favorite behemoths. Its older, indoor sibling closes for the summer season, but all visitors get to pay their respects and admire its empty beauty on the walk from the locker room.

I don’t find myself in Greenwich Village very often, but if I’m down there again at the right time I would definitely return to this charmer.

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#79: Marcus Garvey Park Pool

Marcus Garvey PoolLocation: Harlem, Manhattan

Configuration: 8 50-meter marked lanes (no lane lines)

Fee: Free

The Pool Tourism Club convened on a warm, humid evening last week for a visit to Marcus Garvey Park Pool‘s night owl session. The pool and locker room had definitely been well used during the day, so we weren’t seeing the facility at its best, but it was still enjoyable. Evening is the only option for lap swimming, since this pool has no early bird session.

This park–formerly Mount Morris Park–is so central to Harlem that it sits smack in the middle of Fifth Avenue, interrupting the street grid for a few blocks south of 125th Street, the main drag. The pool is nicely perched atop a small rise, so the view was twilight settling across tree tops and apartment windows. Sound effects included the hip-hop Romeo n Juliet performance from the adjacent amphitheater.

Janet, Lisa Lisa, Piezy, and AmandaWhile not nearly as crowded as some other lap swim venues, there were far more than 8 people, and yet the concept of circle swimming with more than one to a black line seemed foreign, and people narrowly avoided collision in the cloudy water time and again. Janet, Amanda, Piezy, Lisa Lisa, and I staked our claim to a “lane” near the far end of the pool. Even as we stopped to chat between laps of twirly breaststroke and corkscrew, people mostly got the message that it was ours. As we were leaving, however, we were both complimented for looking like a flock of wild sea birds and chastised for swimming as a “pack.” How better to insert five people into a busy pool is beyond me.

Aside from the views, the most interesting thing about swimming here is the whirlpool effect part-way down the lane. I’d experienced it more severely in the past in another lane, but it was still quite noticeable here. Basically, there is one point in the pool where–try as you might–it’s impossible to hold your line due to the force of the water coming in. Between that and the lack of clarity, it was good open water training.

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#72: Athletic and Swim Club

pool from far end

Image by Club Corp

Location: Midtown Manhattan

Configuration: 4 x 25 yards

Fee: Free as guest of member during membership promo

A New York Times article a couple months back noted that there are “only” 150 indoor pools in Manhattan. Considering this in light of my expired Reebok Sports Club membership, which I am mourning inconsolably, served as a good reminder that I still have a lot of water to test locally. After all, I’ve notched “only” 72 pools since 2012, many of them off-island.

To give myself a sense of possibility, I set my sights on one of the few facilities that I thought might stand a chance against the luxe Reebok Club, where I had grown very fond of the hot tub, the café, the spacious lockers, the hot tub, the roof deck, the nap-friendly spaces, and did I mention the hot tub? Yup, I miss it there.

The Athletic and Swim Club at Equitable Center caters to a similarly upscale demographic, but whereas I would feel tempted to stay all day at the Reebok Club, this one seemed geared to getting me in and out as efficiently as possible without a visible trace of the workout. How so? For one, the location in the belly of the Midtown beast, with direct underground access to the Rockefeller Center concourse, means that you can get here from all over Midtown without setting a foot outdoors. (I recommend entering from street level on Seventh Avenue so you can admire the Roy Lichtenstein mural on the way in. Do not try to take a picture, though.) You don’t need to bring workout clothes, since those are provided, and you can even have your business attire pressed while you’re not in it! (Swimmers do need to bring their own swimsuit.) There’s a full array of toiletries and styling devices, and you can grab a complimentary apple on the way out to chomp on your way back to the office.

This is not to say that the club isn’t very, very nice. It is.The hot tub jets were perhaps not quite as strong as those I’d grown accustomed to, and you could argue that the locker area would benefit from some refreshing, but this was still at the far end of the fanciness spectrum and leaps beyond my usual swim spots.

My visit took place on a weekday afternoon after a work event in Midtown, and I enjoyed the swim. I had one of the pool’s four lanes to myself the whole time, the water was pleasantly cool, and it felt light and spacious despite being far underground. Not so light and spacious that I’d want to relax in the lounge chairs, but they were a nice touch. My biggest gripe against the pool, which is really quite minor, is that the metal rim around the edge is not quite flush with the tiling and therefore proved annoying at the turns.

In a way I suppose I’m glad that I wasn’t as taken with this as I was with the Reebok Club, because its location is even less convenient, and it’s easier to have just one true love. If I worked in Midtown and wanted a secret hideaway, I would definitely keep this in mind.

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Pool Play

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

Pool Play set

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

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

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

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

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#61: Dwight School Athletic Center Pool

Dwight School pool deep end

Photo courtesy Bob Nelson.

Location: East Harlem, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 lanes x 25 yards

Fee: $10.25 with TNYA subscription

Because the City College pool has been out of service for an extended period of time, my ever-resourceful team has added yet another venue to its schedule: the Dwight School Athletic Center. Ever curious, I checked it out last Thursday evening. Rental fees are high, so we had just three lanes for an hour-long workout with Coach Matt, even though no one else was using the other three lanes. It was lovely.

locker roomThis feels like a new pool. It’s sparkling clean and so freshly painted that you can practically smell it. All the latest pool toys are available, there is an on-deck shower and water fountain, and the locker room has plenty of space and pleasantly tall showers. The water is a deep, twilighty blue.

Amazingly, this “new” pool is about my age. It was built in the 1970s for 1199 Plaza, aka East River Landing, an affordable coop development with more than 1,500 apartments. A renovation in the 1990s didn’t have lasting effects, but this recent renovation is part of a 20-year agreement inaugurated earlier this year with the Dwight School, an Upper West Side private school in need of athletic space for its students to develop their individual “spark of genius.” Tennis, volleyball, and basketball are some of the other sporting possibilities here. There are also fee-based community hours, including lap swimming daily from 7:00 to 10:00 a.m.

pool rulesSome have surmised that the cleanliness is due to lack of use. Certainly my sole visit showed nothing to the contrary. It is, however, worth noting the extensive pool rules, the most emphatic of which–in all caps, mid-sign–mandates rubber pants (?) for all children under four. Swim caps are required for all as well. Perplexingly for this underground location, if there is lightning, the pool closes for half an hour.

doorwayAnother perk is the location just a mile up the street from me. Like the nearby Thomas Jefferson Park Pool, the means of entrance is not immediately obvious from the street, but if you walk off the street into the complex, between two buildings, you’ll see the sign.

We’ll find out this week if the City College pool is reopening. While I hope to see that pool back online, and to resume one-and-a-half hour evening workouts, I do encourage a visit to this pool while we have it.

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