Looking back on a lifetime spanning now six different decades (1960’s through 20-teens), there are few things that I can point to that have been part of my life throughout this time. One of them has been a love for swimming, diving, swimming pools, and in general, being submerged in water. I believe chlorine is in my blood.
Within a few weeks of arriving in Columbia, my family found itself at the Running Brook Pool. Equipped with the little 2”x2” pool passes pinned to our suits, we began the yearly ritual of escaping the heat of summer in the water. After three short weeks of lessons, I found myself part of the Running Brook Swim Team. Somewhere in my house I have a shoebox filled with decades-old swimming ribbons. Small badges marking stroke, time and place from long ago. I remember the maroon and white striped swimsuits were not all too protective from the sun, and resulted in alternating tan-and-not-tan stripes on my butt. This was also my first introduction to Visine.
Summer days were filled with splashing in the 3ft and “taking the Nestea Plunge” in the 5ft (a maneuver that today would raise the ire of CA’s risk management overlords). All of this periodically interrupted by the lifeguard’s long whistle trill signaling adult swim. This provided time for us kids to find their way to the 7-eleven for Slurpees and the occasional purchase of Wacky-Packages or Odd Rod sticker packs (yes, thanks to the wonder of the internet, they are still available). Those days ended back at home, with hair bleached by sun and chlorine to point of almost being translucent and total exhaustion. Yes, we slept well on those summer nights.
As childhood blossomed into pre-teen and adolescence, Columbia’s aquatics grew to more than a dozen pools scattered throughout the city. Toughskins cut-offs gave way to OP shorts and swimsuits. Someone invented the boombox. WPGC and WAVA went from the AOR format to pop-40. Funk and R&B were provided equally by WOOK (OK-100) and the big ol’ funky V-103. The word “lightsaber” entered the lexicon.
Back at the pool (now the Dasher Green pool), swimming proficiency expanded from freestyle to backstroke and then breaststroke to butterfly. Splashing in the shallow end migrated to all kinds of merriment in the deep end.
The 1-meter diving board, installed throughout the city, became a focus. As with all things aquatic, it begins with learning: Step out to the end, turn around and take three steps back. Take two steps, and on the third step, hop; land with two feet and find yourself sprung into the air. After that, what happens was up to you and your imagination. And this is where it gets interesting. No matter where you lived in Columbia, the types of dives, even when left to the imagination, efficiently whittled down to a few different types of dives. The simple forward dive, the swan dive, the “jackknife.” The forward flip, forward 1-1/2, and the hard to accomplish forward double. The backflip, the back 1-1/2, the gainer. Apart from the acrobatics existed a second type of dive – the “splash dive.” The intent here is completely counter to the Olympic diving ideal: bounce off the board and displace as much water when you hit the surface. The belly-flop, the cannonball, the can opener, wherein one leg is gripped by the arms combined with a falling-backward motion only after touching the water. Hours were spent launching off the board, splashing, and then returning to the end of the line again to get the chance to refine and repeat the performance.
As middle school gave way to high school, the chance to work at the pool presented itself. This required obtaining Red Cross lifeguard certification and was taught over-winter at the Columbia Swim Center. For those who are old-dog Columbia lifeguards, you know who ran the lifeguard certification. Kitty was an affable woman who embodied years of experience and wisdom with regard to water safety, first aid, and responsibility. This course was unlike any other course for Columbia’s teens. It required study and passing written and practical exams. All those kind and friendly lifeguards that we had known through the years showed up to ensure that anyone taking the course was going to know how to keep the pool safe and how to rescue anyone in trouble.
Completion of the course and subsequent employment of the Columbia Association put pool operation in a whole new light. Work involved not only shifts “in the chair” or at the front desk, but also included a needed knowledge of pool filtration, water chemistry, and a knowledge of pumping systems. There was a lot of cleaning. But there was a cadre of great people. Suddenly your peer group was not limited to your neighborhood and high school, but expanded city wide. Fast friendships were developed with Peter, Ellen and Larry from Atholton, Beth and Chris from Wilde Lake (although Beth lived in Clemens Crossing), Jen, John, Cindy, Mary, and Luke from Oakland Mills, Benny and Kim (and her younger brother Steve) from Centennial, Jimmy (and his brothers John and Dennis) and Rich from Mt. Hebron, and Judy, who lived in Catonsville, but found her way down to Columbia every summer. Many of these friends are still close to this day.
During this time, CA expanded offerings at some of the pools. Hot tubs were installed. Volleyball went from “on grass,” to “on mulch,” to “on sand.” Splashdown opened at the Columbia Swim Center.
It was at the end of this era that the imbalance occurred. As with most forms of recreation, aquatics offerings evolve. After two decades of pool operations, a different type of pool emerged in the late 1980’s; the “superpool.” Let’s first go on record and say that at the time, the Columbia Association was correct in constructing superpools in Hawthorn, Dickenson, River Hill, and Kendall Ridge. I take a little bit of exception to the construction of the Clary’s Forest superpool, given that it is less than a mile from Hawthorn. Construction of those pools demonstrated that CA continued to be on the leading edge of aquatic recreation.
What also occurred at that time was that CA quietly changed the name of the non-indoor division from “Neighborhood Pools” to “Outdoor Pools.” CA now claims that this change in nomenclature signaled that they would no longer pursue the Columbia Vision of having a pool in every Columbia neighborhood.
From that point forward, not all Columbia pools were created equal. Before the advent of the superpool, most aquatic facilities followed a predictable offering. Each provided lanes for lap swimming, a diving board (with one or two exceptions), a roped-off shallow end, and a deeper end. There were differences. Some pools are 25 meters; some are 25 yards. Some baby pools are round, others square. Some bathhouses are little more than a small bathroom and shower. Some bathhouses are more extensive. Bryant Woods has perpetually shaded by trees (and some like that just fine). Huntington and Dorsey’s Search have a lot of deck and not much grass. All-in-all, the differences were not so large that a pool a little farther away was not so different than the one close by. In fact, as I have lived these few decades in aquatic bliss, I have known many people that would just not go to another pool on the day of the week that their pool was closed. The end result was that in the past, pools provided equal opportunity for relief from the heat and family fun, and the pool attending population was dispersed throughout the city.
In the current era, the superpools have quite a bit to offer: beach (or zero-depth) entry, fountains, snack bar, hot tubs (not at Dickensen), and sand volleyball courts. By comparison, pools constructed before the superpools suffer from the lack of amenities. This resulted in a concentrating of pool-goers at a few pools, with others seeing low attendance figures.
This brings me to the current relationship with Columbia’s pools. As a parent, I have looked forward to introducing my kids to the water. Over the last few summers, we have had a great time splashing around and learning how to swim. My son loves the summer swim league, and I have had a great time participating in the master’s events. Here is what has been our family experience with the summer pools: If we get a chance to hit the water during the week, our number one priority is to get to the pool as fast as possible so that we can maximize our time in the water. On the weekends, the focus shifts because we know that we will spend a significant time at the pool. It is then that choices need to be made. Do we want to spend time with classmates? The local pool works well for this, but it is not absolute. Our local elementary school is fed by children in four different Villages, so spending time in the water with classmates can lead us to four different locations. The other driver is what can be done at the pool. At the superpools, the kids can roam from the fountain to the diving board to the volleyball court and back, and that can’t be done at some of the local pools. I have also found that the beach entry is very good for allowing the little one to gain confidence on her terms. At our older neighborhood pool, it is pretty much a yes/no proposition.
Looking forward, I can soon see a day when I can go to the pool with the kids and they will be self-sufficient. Playing in the pool as I did all those years ago. I look forward to watching them do their thing and then getting in a few hundred yards of exercise. I look forward to the sing-song Marco-Polo games while I am still perfecting that forward 1-1/2 or cannonball. And for the first time in my life, I look forward to adult swim, and I will send my son to 7-eleven to get me a cherry and coke (mixed) slurpee.