40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#81: Prospect Park YMCA Aquatics Center

Image by Levien & Company.

Location: Park Slope, Brooklyn

Configuration: 6 x 25 yards

Cost: Free as guest of member

Here is a happy story of depaving a parking lot to put up a paradise. The Prospect Park YMCA Aquatics Center was conceived to expand swim capacity beyond the small, 1927-vintage pool at this bustling facility. It took several years longer than expected to come to fruition but now does just that, netting the Y at least one new member.

Jen, whom I last swam with on Staten Island, is a happy new member here and reports that the new lap pool is never crowded. We visited the day after Thanksgiving and had plenty of room in both the pool and the locker rooms, making for a relaxing afternoon on what for many was a day of frenzied consumption. Indeed, I must admit relief that the patrons here did not match any Park Slopes stereotype of, say, self-righteous parents and precocious children.

Ranging in depth from 4 to 5 feet, the pool exemplifies good aquatic design and management: on-deck showers and bathrooms, pixellated wave and fish tile decorations, toys galore, and natural light from high-level windows on two sides all impressed me. The older pool remains in use, allowing this new one to be largely dedicated to lap swimmers and kept at a not-too-warm temperature.


Jen peers down into the pool from 8th Street.

The YMCA, which has been on an impressive pool-opening kick these past few years, secured enough funding in 2007 to break ground. Donors included then-councilman Bill de Blasio, who remained a devoted gym patron well into his mayoral term before finally leaving the neighborhood for Gracie Mansion. Originally predicted to open in 2008, the project took much longer than expected in typical New York fashion, finally seeing completion this past summer.

The exterior belies the high-ceilinged space inside. Cleverly, the new pool was built well below grade, with just one story poking up above ground, thereby maximizing future development possibilities and quashing the parking lot. There’s still plenty of bike parking out front by the main entrance on 9th Street, allowing the natives to arrive by the politically correct conveyance.

Jen is a regular here now, and I wish the Y would do something in my neighborhood.

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#50: Rye YMCA Brookside Pool

Weekend WarriorsLocation: Rye, New York

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free as guest of member

Fees to Date: $191.87

My enthusiastic follow-up on JGH’s pool suggestions brought me to the Rye Y last Sunday morning to swim with the “weekend warriors,” an informal, testosterone-heavy group of mostly former collegiate swimmers. They swam a challenging workout for an hour or so starting right when the pool opened and then went on with their days.

how to increase your quality of lifeAs I overheard in the locker room later, where I was incognito as a visiting warrior, they are not beloved by other Y members due to the turbulence they create. By my observation, they used the space very efficiently, considerately leaving the rest of the pool free for civilian lap swimmers.

Their pool–new in 2003–is lovely, a standard 6-laner with light from large windows on two sides piercing the pool with sunbeams. Add in a friendly lifeguard who writes messages like the one at right and the typical YMCA homeyness, and you have a nice place to swim. As at many Ys, there’s a separate teaching pool (theirs dates to 1955), leaving the Brookside pool mainly for the enjoyment of lap swimmers.

view from the deep endOne locker room innovation that I haven’t seen elsewhere is the placement of the suit spinner: built into the counter between two sinks. This puts it by both a drain and a power source and avoids an unsightly outcropping from the wall. Other facilities should take note.

The “Brookside” name refers to Rye Brook right alongside the parking lot. It’s so prone to flooding that the Y installed floodgates for protection, and they worked well in the recent storm, allowing the Y to reopen and welcome in community members soon after the storm passed.


#49: Vanderbilt YMCA East Pool

Location: Midtown, Manhattan

Configuration: 6 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free via Fitness Passbook

Fees to Date: $191.87

The Vanderbilt Y was my very first pool in New York City. My first job was three blocks away, and I joined the gym and ducked out to Body Conditioning class at lunchtime, it being the early 1990s and all. The pool was my destination regularly but less often during those three or so years as a member, and I have since returned from time to time using Fitness Passbook passes.

It’s a solid pool: six lanes, 25 yards, cool temperature, shallow the whole way across. A separate teaching pool allows this one to have endless hours of uninterrupted lap swimming. Towels are available free of charge, and there are showers right on deck. The Y has changed a lot in the intervening years, but it’s still a welcoming hub of activity for all ages.

Back when I was a regular here, I knew no other swimmers, but now I recognize plenty of people. My yoga classmate Hank was my official swim buddy when I came here two Saturdays ago, and there in the next lane was Kenn training for his swim around Manhattan.

I didn’t take any pictures because supervision was tight, so here are some from the masters group for your enjoyment. (Also check out these more recent pool pics that Capri was able to sneak.) If I still worked nearby, I’d be glad to use this pool.

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#48: Greenwich Family YMCA Wren Weisenburger Pool

Greenwich Y poolLocation: Greenwich, Connecticut

Configuration: 25 yards by 50 meters, give or take a ramp

Fee: Free for indeterminate reasons while in the company of a Rye Y member

Fees to Date: $191.87

The very first follower of my blog got right into the spirit of my project and immediately suggested three pools. I made it to one of them– Hommocks–in the dead of winter and have returned a bunch of times but hadn’t ventured to the other options so kindly offered up. With the end of the year fast approaching, it was time to take action on JGH’s recommendations.

Pool Donated by the Wren Weisenburger FamiliesThe Scoring System is a Gift from Kathy and Bill SmithMy office was closed on Election Day, making it a good time to travel across state lines for a swim at the Greenwich Family YMCA. The aquatics center is new within the past several years and presented many naming opportunities to the town’s wealthy denizens. The pool itself was funded by the Wren and Weisenburger families–though whether they funded the Y out of default or just the initial estimated cost I couldn’t tell you–and elements such as locker rooms and the timing system (above right) recognize their respective donors. I just hope that none of their cars were parked in the garage underneath during the unsuccessful test of the pool’s ability to hold water.

Another goof was a miscalculation regarding the length, such that the wheelchair ramp has to be removed for the full 50-meter length to be swimmable. We were there during 25-yard time, and there were a plethora of lanes available even with the diving well sectioned off and some lanes taken up by a youth team.

Between the ample space and the sunlight pouring in, the visit was quite enjoyable. Despite the rich Zip code, this is still a Y, with all the friendliness and community programming you’d expect. The unpleasant surprise came later when a rash in the pull-buoy-contact area of my legs broke out. I diagnosed this as cooties. Fancy, Greenwich-variety cooties, specifically.

Earlier this year, another 50-meter pool opened nearby. It does not allow drop-in visitors or trial memberships, and the masters coach did not reply to an inquiry about a trial workout. For occasional 50-meter training in southwestern Connecticut, the Greenwich Y is the place to go.

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Not a Pool: West Side Y Small Pool

West Side Y small pool
Janet had helped me plan my swim at the West Side Y so that I’d finish up when the so-called small pool was available. Previously unaware that this pool existed, I was excited to see it–and it did not disappoint. Entering from the showers at the upper left corner above is quite simply breathtaking. Look at the beautiful Spanish tiles, painted arches, colorful windows, and dramatic Neptune mosaic (bonus points if you figure out why it’s rated PG-13). If the skill and love that went into this pool were more common, the world would be a much happier and prettier place.

Neptune mural

At 20 yards, this pool might be used for laps at a lesser facility, but here it is the teaching pool, and the water is kept at a warm, learning-friendly temperature. We had to leave when a gaggle of extremely cute young children paraded in for their swim time.

Piecing together information from various sources, I believe that both pools were built at the same time as part of the 1930 building that the Y moved to from its 1896 home on West 57th Street. The new facility was the largest-ever Y up until that time. The architect,  Dwight James Baum, had a thing for Romanesque and Moorish styles, and he was not shy about expressing himself in this commission. His flair and attention to detail are evident throughout, including the marble columns and arched doorways on West 63rd Street, ornate chandeliers in common spaces, and that medieval-style door we saw in the larger pool. Alas, his masterpiece was being built as the U.S. economy slid into the Great Depression, and the small pool’s ornamentation was in question. None other than King Alfonso XIII of Spain came to the rescue, donating the tilework to ensure that the small pool was outfitted according to Baum’s splendid vision.

Hannah,Janet, and stained-glass windows

Some 75 years later, the tiles were showing their age, and again Spain stepped in, this time at the behest of a Y member originally from Spain. A 2006 restoration was completed with more than 600 hand-painted tile pieces created by a Spanish company called Adex. It’s an interesting story that I couldn’t do justice to without lifting it entirely, so I recommend you check it out: Tile Restoration of the Spectacular Spanish Pool of the West Side YMCA.

I’m counting this as not-a-pool because it is not set up for laps. I should point out, however, that the pesky rope separating deep end from shallow end did not deter one lap swimmer while Janet and I lazed around on floaty noodles. I should also point out that, pools aside, this entire Y has a truly wondrous array of offerings. The international organizations Achilles Track Club and Elderhostel both started here, the Writers Voice has its home here, there are overnight accommodations, a pre-school, and all the other fitness and community services one expects from a YMCA. I highly recommend a visit.


#27: West Side YMCA Pool

Location: Upper West Side, New York

Configuration: 4 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free as guest of member (entry also available via Fitness Passbook or Y guest pass)

Fees to Date: $151.41

The “large pool” at the West Side Y almost fits the mold of the old city bathhouses that I’ve been enjoying, with its pretty tilework and five-lanes-on-the-bottom-but-only-four-up-top configuration, but it doesn’t have any windows. When I first came here many years ago, there was a bizarro swim pattern that required swimming one direction in one lane and moving over to an adjacent lane for the return, but that was corrected long ago.

fast lane sign hung up by band-aidsmystery doorI returned last Friday morning to get in the first of a few necessary long swims in preparation for stage 1 of 8 Bridges, which I finally signed up for, and it was perfect! It’s a real swimmers’ facility, with cool water, an on-deck stretching area with mats, supportive staff, and mostly good etiquette. Another novelty is that the backstroke flags are hung from the balcony railings. Ooh, towels are provided, too. The pool opens at 5:00 a.m. on weekdays, making even a rather long swim feasible before the work day begins.

I could see the clocks at either end clearly to watch the minutes pass and keep track of when feeding pauses were coming up. To help pass the time, I thought about the people who were instrumental in reviving the open water swim scene in New York, many of whom met here swimming masters in the 1990s. I also liked looking at the tiled waves in the pool gutters (you can see them in the lower left corner of the photo above) and wondering what was behind the medieval-looking mystery door by the shallow end.

Janet came for the last hour, so we were sometimes three in the lane then, but otherwise there was just one other person or me all by myself.  After all that, the best part was yet to come–another pool! Stay tuned.

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#10: McBurney YMCA

Melissa, Hannah, Miriam at the end of practiceLocation: Chelsea, New York

Configuration: 7 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Fitness Passbook pass (or use a free guest pass)

Total Fees to Date: $115.58

It’s fun to swim at the Y-M-C-A! This is especially true at the McBurney Y, which was the inspiration for the famous Village People song.

The Y has pools strategically located throughout New York. McBurney is one of the newer ones, replacing a facility of the same name that was on 23rd Street. The old McBurney, where the song came from, had a marble-lined pool where financiers Merrill and Lynch first met in 1913. The new McBurney, on 14th Street, has hosted someone even more noteworthy in my book: Michael Phelps. He visited in 2008 as part of a media event, and I’ve heard that he’s stopped by for a swim more recently as well.

He was not there this morning, but I was still in good company. Miriam (above right) was my official swim buddy for the day, and she arranged for me to join the master’s workout with coach Mark. Miriam is a member of my team, and she’s one of the most dedicated cheerers at events, always waving orange and blue pom-poms. Melissa (above left), Phyllis, and Elke were also part of the masters group, plus a couple people I had not met previously. Since we used just two lanes, we got a lot of personal attention from the coach and did a number of helpful stroke drills.

swim mural above the poolMy favorite thing about swimming here (aside from the good company) is a recent addition, a swimural by Arnie Charnick. Originally installed alongside the track that circles the top of the pool area, it was moved to its rightful home above the deep end last summer and can still be seen through the windows from the track and workout areas. It’s full of powerful-looking pool lovers swimming and playing–the big guy on the left looks like Michael Phelps to me–and I love the cool expressions of the swimmers in the middle lanes. Long kicks sets fly by with this mural as a distraction, because I notice something new in it during each lap.

True to its roots, the Y is a family facility. Since there’s only one pool here it’s kept pretty warm to accommodate all ages and types of users, and there is always plenty going on in the lounge area overlooking the pool as well as the rest of the Y.

There was almost a glitch with my pass. Apparently it’s only supposed to be used when the front desk is open, so they wanted me to wait an hour. I was able to convince the attendant to allow my entry in time for the masters group, however, and then stopped by the desk on my way out to complete the necessary paperwork. Next time I go at an off hour, I’ll try to remember to call ahead.

The fact that it’s mid-February and I’m already at pool #10 indicates faster-than-needed progress toward the goal of 40 pools by year-end. This is turning out to be so much fun that I think I’ll keep up the pool tourism and blog throughout 2012, even if the total ends up equaling a higher age. Keep the suggestions coming!