Magazine Article

Lapping Up Attention

May 1st, 2011

Triathletes to teens take to the waters of the Helene Madison Pool

By Rebekah Denn

Carly Tu first joined the WAC for access to its pool, but it wasn’t until a few years later that she took full advantage of what it had to offer.

Training for her first IronMan competition, “I just knew I needed to kick it up a notch,” she said. So Carly asked Aquatics Supervisor Jennifer Mesler if she would be a good fit for a Masters Swim Team. “I’m new to this. I’m not sure how it works,” she remembers emailing Jennifer. “Is it OK that I only know how to do freestyle?”

As she found, there’s room for everyone at the historic pool.

Classes start as young as 6-month-old infants, stretch through all levels to an active juniors swim team, then phase into adult classes. Grownups can access everything from beginning adult instruction, focusing on basic strokes and breathing, up to technique and endurance workouts and triathlon training.

Help doesn’t have to be restricted to the poolside, either. Need help with open-water swimming for triathlons? Jennifer can arrange private lessons in local lakes.

Generally, she said, members should just ask if they need something where the pool staff can help. They’ll be “more than happy” to try and make it happen.

About 3,000 members each month use the pool, which has been a significant draw for members since it opened in 1930. Grandparents tell the beginners, “‘I had swimming lessons here when I was a little person,’” Jennifer said.

“They keep coming back.”

WAC member Matthew LePley, for instance, said he does hit the treadmill for occasional workouts. He lifts some weights. But “what draws me in,” three to four days per week, is the adult masters class.

The class, focusing on both technique and endurance, initially appealed to Matthew because it’s an organized, intense, hour-long workout. But over the years, it’s become a source of camaraderie and teamwork as well.

“There’s a small group at the WAC (in the class), and I just get a lot of pleasure from seeing them every day, and we have a lot of fun and get a good workout at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds,” he said.

Carly Tu felt the same: “It’s a really supportive community at the pool. You get to know people, they get to know you,” she said.

The class “is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my swimming.”

Carly worked on speed and endurance in the class, and wound up finishing 13th in her age group out of 81 participants in her first IronMan.

“They say you can’t win it in the swim, but they say you can lose it in the swim. And I improved my time enough that I at least came out of the water competitive,” she said.

She’s now training for her second (including aquajogging while she recovers from a stress fracture).

“I really got hooked, and just kind of wanted to know where my limits were. And I haven’t reached them yet” she said.

“I’m hoping to be at the front of the pack this year.”

The WAC pool is recognizable in historic newspaper clippings like the one featuring the women’s relay team, “a quartet of speedy mermaids who will seek new aquatic honors for Seattle.” One of those “mermaids” was celebrated swimmer Helene Madison, who went on to win three gold medals at the 1932 Olympics, receiving what called the largest ticker tape parade in city history. The pool was renamed in Madison’s honor in 1960.

A 2002 renovation preserved the antique charm of Madison’s day, but brightened and updated it. “One of the goals was to keep the original architecture of the pool intact—and, in some cases, to bring it back to the original architecture,” said Wayne Milner, Vice President Athletics.

The tall, arched windows are now clear instead of frosted, bringing in more light. The brick wainscoting was restored, and family changing rooms were installed.

A few years later, Wayne said, a high-tech ultraviolet filtration system was installed, reducing skin-irritating chlorine to a minimum.

“There’s so much to offer there,” said member Kersten Gaba, who began swimming as rehabilitation after foot surgery. She moved on to adult lessons, finding that “techniques have changed since we were kids in swim team.”

Kersten’s 10-year-old son has taken swim lessons with instructor Todd Kowalski and joined the WAC swim team, which has the bonus of dry-land assistance from WAC fitness trainers. The swim team, particularly active in the 40s and 50s, has had a renewed membership in recent years, traveling around the region for meets. Kersten said the difference in her son’s abilities now is “night and day.”

“The people there, like Todd and Jennifer, they’re not just doing this job as a whim, they’re doing it because they’ve got the passion for it.”

Jennifer, who took over as supervisor Jan. 31 after eight years as an instructor, said coaching is what she loves. When hiring others, she seeks out that same “enjoyability,” plus experience, enthusiasm and the ability to adapt. “It’s never the same from one session to the next,” she said.

It’s gravy for her to see member evaluations like the one that just crossed her desk, praising a coach’s “unflinching dedication.”

The masters classes are an especially fun mixed group for her, offering a mix of structured workouts, endurance and aerobic work, and breaking down each stroke to make it as efficient and well-tuned as possible. Some members were on swim team in school and appreciate the discipline of the class, some were looking for an interesting new way to train, and some are completely new to the format. “I try to include all the skill levels,” Jennifer said. But if newcomers are still intimidated, there’s also a “fundamentals” class to build their skills.

Historic photos show five lanes in the pool, and Jennifer has heard stories of how members would wait in line outside the pool for their turn to swim. Now there are three wide lanes in the regulation-length pool—25 yards, big enough to host a swim meet of its own. Even during the busier hours, the morning and evening rushes, “we know the regulars,” she said. If they don’t show up as usual, there’s someone to ask, “Where were you yesterday?”

On the Saturday that marked the first day of a new programming session, there’s no need to ask. Every half-hour, new groups of children and parents stream in, finding the correct corners of the pool.

Erin Westphal, walking in with daughters Olivia, 3, and Sophia, 7, leans down to reassure a friend’s nervous newcomer: “It’s so much fun. You guys aren’t going to want to come out of the water.” Gently, gradually, instructor Colleen Elkington coaxes the beginners into the water.

Youngster Charlie Thompson, standing poolside in his orange suit, screws up his face and jumps in. “Nice, dude!” calls out instructor Aaron Frasier.

Todd leads older students through the elements of the backstroke, and watches them glide down the length of the pool. “When our arms go out, our legs go out,” he demonstrated next, the students watching and nodding and then following his lead.It isn’t hard to imagine some of them, in years to come, returning for their swim team or masters class or workday fitness break.

“You guys, awesome job with that,” Todd said as they finished their task.

“Let’s do it again.

Rebekah Denn is a freelance writer based in Seattle.