Swimming in Sydney

By Deborah Fallows

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Even in the pre-Internet days, when I actually had to write letters to hotels and rely on often outdated guidebooks, the arrangements generally worked out well.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 d├ęcor 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.

One cloudy day, I set out to find the state-of-the-art indoor Ian Thorpe Aquatic Center, named for the national hero and star of the 2000 Olympic games, aka Thorpedo. The pool sits in a cumbersome part of town, and my usually trusty maps were leading me into dead ends or unmarked highways. This was discouraging.

But then I spotted a man among the city crowd in shorts, a t-shirt, and with a telltale small green towel rolled under his arm. "A swimmer," I thought. "One of my people!" I followed him discreetly, keeping a spy's distance away. He seemed to be heading in the right direction. He crossed diagonal streets; I followed. He passed behind some kind of warehouse area and hopped over some tram tracks; I followed. Lo and behold, there was the line of elegant upswept roof of the aquatic center, familiar to me from photographs. It is a glorious pool, with quiet water, bright changing rooms, hot saunas, and the rumor that Ian Thorpe still trains there. Thorpe had the media in a frenzy this week as he attempted, but finally failed, to qualify for the Olympic trials at Adelaide. I was rooting for him.

Next: the rock pools, Sydney's showpiece pools carved into the seaside. The Icebergs -- the famous Bondi (pronounced bond-eye) Beach pool -- is not for the faint of heart.

The water temperature sign said 18.3 degrees centigrade, which converts to just shy of 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Although I am a proud member of Prudhoe Bay's Polar Bear Club, a distinction reserved for those who have plunged into the 30-something-degree Arctic waters, this still sounded cold.

Sea waves crashed in over the eastern edge of the pool wall. There were only three or four wet-suited swimmers churning through the water. I wished I had a wetsuit. At 100 meters, I warmed up a bit. By 150, I thought I could survive the swim. By 600 meters, I was getting chilled again and swam as fast as I could to get to 1,000.

I leapt out of the water, considered a quick stop in the sauna, or a coffee with the pensioners who were sunning over their warm drinks and newspapers. But I decided to press on to the cliffside hike to Bronte Baths, about 3.5 km south. Banks of white and yellow wildflowers dotted the path, and happy joggers out for late morning runs. I ambled through Waverly cemetery, searching in vain for the gravestone of Fanny Durack, who won the Olympic gold in 1912 -- the first year women swimmers competed in the Games.

Bronte Baths looked a little tamer. The pool is smaller and more benign, with waves lapping rather than crashing over the ocean seawalls. The Baths draw a curious crowd: backpackers rinsing off days of grit and impressively-busted aging Russian babushkas bobbing about like natural buoys. Even farther down the path are two more spectacular rock pools, the famous Women's Pool, where nuns and Muslim women swim comfortably. And Wylie's Baths, which many in Sydney boast is their best.

Finally, Sydney Harbor itself awaited. 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. You can hop on and off the ferries for a swim at the many inlet beaches, which are netted against sharks to keep swimmers safe. I swam among the docks and pilings at a friend's house one day. And another day we joined other lucky sailors, who glided in and dropped anchor at Quarantine Beach, a small isolated stretch so named for the mandatory first stop for certain seafaring visitors. The Quarantine Station operated as late as 1984, and is now a luxury hotel. We swam in from the boat through the cold and warm currents to loll along the beach a while.

I've lost track of my aim for 10 pools, having already exceeded the number. In a few weeks, I'll return home to the U.S., waterlogged, and like all Aussies, smelling slightly of chlorine, tasting slightly of salt.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/swimming-in-sydney/254615/