Slippery When Wet
Humans weren't designed to do a lot of things, and yet we do them anyway – parachuting, bungee jumping, eating at McDonald's. While it’s debatable whether long-distance running belongs on that list (folks point to things like our long legs and lung capacity as evidence that we’re designed for it), no one (except maybe Kevin Costner) thinks we’re built for the water.
Because I do the former (running), I’ve found myself on various occasions being forced to do the latter (swimming). In my experience, running wears you down. I'm sure this has something to do with the fact that I’m 6'5'' and my midsection resembles an outdoor grill. So when I run, which I've been doing at varying levels of intensity since 10th grade, my knees and ankles and hips take a pounding, supporting many summers' worth of beer and smoked meats. Eventually something breaks, and when that happens I head to SF's public pools.
However, you don't have to be a debilitated runner to take advantage of the city's quirky network of public swimming holes. Each pool – there are nine scattered all around the city – offers different programs such as free-swimming, aerobic classes, swim lessons, etc. But if you are an athlete of any kind and find yourself sidelined for some reason, lap swimming is your new BFF. While it's as low impact as exercise gets, it's also a ridiculously good, completely exhausting full-body workout.
Turns out the expression “No Pain, No Gain” isn't always true, although come to think of it, trying to squeeze into a Speedo can be pretty painful, at least emotionally, and dodging unidentifiable free-floating underwater mucus probably isn't high on every fitness nut's list. But all that pales in comparison to the high you get from swimming, which is lessened only slightly from the low you get from showering next to old dudes.
For years I lived right next to a public pool and didn’t know it. SF pools aren't generally like one of those '80s movies about growing up in Brooklyn where gangs of kids go swarming by in trunks on hot summer days. Rather, they're tucked away within anonymous looking rec centers, usually identified only by a green sign with white lettering: Mission Pool. This is the first pool I ever tried. It's nestled just off of Valencia on Linda between 18th and 19th, though it's possible you've passed it a dozen times and never noticed.
As a swimming newbie, one of your first decisions will be your most important: trunks or Speedo? You will inevitably decide, as I did, to wear trunks, confusing lap swimming with a trip to the beach. This is a mistake. While trunks are fashionable, they drag significantly in the water (heck, even your leg hair slows you down, but we all draw the line somewhere). Ultimately, my need for speed found me making the trip to Sports Basement for what I consider to be a decent compromise: a sleek, thigh-high Speedo with streaks of camouflage that lets folks know I've still got fashion sense, even if they can see an outline of my balls.
As one of the few outdoor public pools in the city, the Mission Pool is a real gem. The problem is that lots of folks tend to be attracted to shiny objects. With lap swimming at the Mission Pool, I learned to deal with crowds: the etiquette involved in passing someone and letting yourself be passed, the smiles exchanged with your fellow be-Speedo’d swimmers who might have just kicked you in the head. The crowd situation seemed to be the same at the North Beach Pool on Lombard Street on the day I visited. These are both great pools, and while the crowds are managed pretty well – providing fast and slow lanes depending on your ability – I wanted to see if I could find the lane less swum in. This took me further into the Mission, to the Garfield Pool on Treat between 25th and 26th.
Closed for renovations for at least a year, the Garfield Pool, also in the Mission, re-opened in July. You'd think renovations would mean all new amenities like lockers and showers and stuff, but what they mainly entailed was removing some asbestos and making sure the building didn't collapse. These are public pools after all, not the lagoon at Caesars Palace.
This is not to say that public pools are filthy, decrepit places. Contrary to the assumptions of friends, the locker rooms are not peopled by showering vagrants. They're pretty much the same as those from your high school gym class: not clean enough to eat off of, but a perfectly reasonable place to get naked in front of other men, including, in my experience, 350-pound dudes with birthmarks resembling the Channel Islands, and a seemingly endless number of septuagenarians whose conversation skills seem to be at their best when their penises are dangling six inches from one another. I'm the kind of guy who likes to change, swim, change, and leave, but apparently I'm in the minority: the tradition of the Roman bathing halls is alive and well amongst my fellow aquatic enthusiasts.
Anyway, back to the pool. The Garfield Pool is big, much bigger than the Mission Pool, with wider, longer lanes. I was used to doing 20 laps at the Mission Pool (a "lap" is up and back; a "length" is a single trip to the other side), but could only field 10 at Garfield, which was a little dispiriting. The good thing about Garfield, though, is it's much less crowded: No one was kicking me in the face and I was able to be alone with my thoughts: "Why are you so out of shape?" "Is my butt crack sticking out of my Speedo?" "What is that protozoa thing floating by me?"
Garfield is near my house so it'll probably end up being my regular spot, but it's not the best of the bunch. That distinction belongs to the Martin Luther King Jr. Pool, which is located in a neighborhood not generally associated with high-end public facilities: the Bayview.
It was on a recent sunny day that I rode my bike from the Mission down through Hunter's Point, along Jerrod and over to 3rd, practically to the shadow of Candlestick Park, where there arose a brand-new-looking aquatic complex containing the Martin Luther King Jr. Pool. Now this place is sterling. Inside, the lockers were intact, the showers decent, and the pool itself was pristine, lit by sunlight shining through the roof windows.
There was also plenty of pool to go around, not only because the place is sort of out of the way but also because it's huge. As a water aerobics group did their thing on one side, three geriatric men (chatting it up naked in the locker room as always) and I had the entire other side to ourselves. I managed 15 lovely laps at MLK, and had so much space I even executed my first kick-turns, a heretofore flummoxing bit of acrobatics that turned me all around and shot water up my nose. This time, however, I was able to flip myself over, press my feet up against the wall, and push myself elegantly into my next lap. It was as if I was born to do this.
There are nine public pools in SF, including pools in the Sunset, Mission, and North Beach. Each schedule varies between lap-swimming, recreational swimming, etc. Adult admission is typically $5. Check http://sfrecpark.org/Rec-Aquatics.aspx for schedules and info, then dive in. Speedos are optional, but they kind of make the experience.