Swimming in Sydney

A lifelong swimming enthusiast sets up shop in Australia for several weeks and makes it a mission to swim in 10 different bodies of water in just 10 days. She's already lost count.

Sydney Harbor as seen from Rose Bay Wikimedia Commons

During our family's many moves and travels abroad (a positive aspect of being married to a journalist!), one of my roles has been as ground control. This means finding places to stay, things to do, how to get around, where to eat -- all the details of life.

Even in the pre-Internet days, when I actually had to write letters to hotels and rely on often outdated guidebooks, the arrangements generally worked out well. There were a few notable exceptions, like our first stay in Sydney, when we ended up with our then six- and nine-year-old boys at a hotel in the red-light district.

I never mind my duties; they always give me a chance to quietly engineer our activities with my personal priority in mind: swimming. Maybe our family noticed that our hotels always had the best pools and that our outings featured water parks, snorkeling, hot springs, even public baths. But maybe they didn't.

We probably overdid it a few times. I contracted hepatitis A in the summer of 1986, and I'm pretty sure the source was the heavily-used outdoor pool at the Friendship Hotel in Beijing. And while we all loved the modest raft hotel on Thailand's River Kwai, our sons still carry the scars from their encounter with the Thai version of piranhas, which nipped off the end of one's little toe and took a scoop from the tender thigh of the other during one hot afternoon's dip.

It's an exciting place: on any given day, sailboats, kayakers, and small power boats dart among commercial tankers, towering cruise ships, and commuter ferries.

Now we're in Australia for several weeks. I sold my husband on our apartment for its stunning view of Sydney Harbor and the proximity to ferry, bus, and subways. He probably wasn't surprised to spot the North Sydney Olympic Pool just at the bottom of our hill.

My mission for our stay: 10 swims in 10 days. With swimsuit and goggles, I have the run of Sydney. I channeled Neddy Merrill from John Cheever's short story, The Swimmer, who decided to swim home from a summer party, hopscotching private pools eight miles across the New York suburbs. I could swim across Sydney!

Recommendations streamed in. Aussie friends would debate the merits of salt vs. freshwater, indoor pools vs. outdoor, harbor swimming vs. ocean. Taxi drivers offered personal favorites: "Have you been to the Newtown pool?" (Not yet.) "What about Manly beaches?" (Yes.) And they elaborated, "Have you seen the aquamusical, Million Dollar Mermaid, with Esther Williams as Aussie Annette Kellerman?" (Hadn't heard of it.)

I realized I had found my soulmates -- an entire continent of people who share my obsession for swimming!

I chose three types of swimming venues: the tame municipal pools, the roped-off harbor beaches, and the wild rock pools carved into the seasides of Sydney's eastern suburbs.

Pick a random Sydney subway stop, and there is likely to be a municipal pool in walking distance. Some are set in rolling parks, like the 50-meter Victoria Park pool next to the University of Sydney. Easy-going locals drift around, and university girls in bikinis stop by for a few laps and a latte midmorning. Swimming here is a pleasure.

The Andrew Boy Charlton Pool -- where else can you get to a pool by a lovely walk through Royal Botanic Gardens -- is right across from docked ships at the Royal Australian naval base and the super-hip Woolloomooloo wharf, where Russell Crowe keeps an apartment. The ABC is named for one of Australia's early Olympic gold medalists, who really was called Boy. I swam no-nonsense laps in the fast lane, amidst a handsome and very fit gay crowd.

The North Sydney Pool is exactly three minutes by foot from our door. Scores of world records have been set there since it was opened in 1936, cheered by fans in the steep concrete grandstands. The pool décor is colorfully art deco, and the locker rooms are spookily dark. Luna Park, an amusement park from the same era, looms over the pool from right next door, its entrance a gigantic molded clown face, with an eerily nightmarish 30-foot-wide smile.

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Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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