I’ve spent a good bit of time in swimming pools over the course of our travels, and this past weekend on our trip to London I reached perhaps the apex of my international swimming experiences when I swam in the London Aquatics Center, the site of the 2012 London Olympic swimming competition and the pool where Michael Phelps distinguished himself as the greatest swimmer and perhaps the greatest athlete of all time.
Phelps won four gold and two silver medals at the 2012 London Olympics and by the end of that competition he had earned his 18th gold and 22nd overall medal. After his last event in London he was given an award naming him the most outstanding Olympic athlete ever. As in, London 2012 was the 30th Olympiad and Phelps was designated the most outstanding of all the exceptional athletes that had competed in the previous 30 Olympiads. That’s almost impossible for me to understand.
Before I jumped in the 50-meter competition pool at the London Aquatics Center in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I had swum laps in a variety of pools in New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, Japan, central and southern Europe and Ireland. In fact, much to Sujata’s chagrin, one of the first things I do when we arrive at any given city is look for the nearest pool. Oh, and it’s not that Sujata doesn’t support my swimming habits, it’s that when we arrive to a new city, the priority is generally finding a place to eat or the location of our hotel, so looking for a pool comes across as an indulgence.
Despite my best efforts, though, sometimes I just can’t find a pool or what I do find is too far or we just don’t have enough time for me to get to the pool. Other times, I’d spend a good amount of time getting to the pool and it’s a bust–like the outdoor pool I found in Phnom Penh where I walked a mile on treacherous roads just to get to the pool and could hardly complete my 1500 meters because the air was so smoggy that my lungs were on fire after just a couple of laps.
There was also a funny moment in Timisoara: After much searching, I finally found a lap pool and it was walking distance from our flat. Score! Or so I thought. I immediately threw my swim gear in my backpack and pretty much ran down the street. I walked into the natatorium and a janitor who spoke no English waved me into a room that I guessed was a changing room so I changed from street clothes to my swim suit, walked through a number of corridors, opened a door and voila, there was the pool. I had a great big grin on my face as I approached the pool and before I heard a gruff voice yelling in Romanian. I knew the verbal assault was directed at me and all my Romanian friends who heard this story said I should have just jumped in the water and started swimming because The Yeller would have just walked away, but being the good, first-born American that I am, I stopped and learned from The Yeller that free swim was over and that I’d have to leave the pool. So I did and I never went back there.
And as much as I loved swimming in the London Aquatics Center, the very best swimming experience I’ve had to date was the Osaka Pool, quite possibly the coolest indoor swimming pool in the world.
If it weren’t for the legacy of greatness that the London Aquatics Center holds, I’m not sure I would have had such a great time. For one thing, the pool was pretty far from where we were staying at Waterloo Station so I had to get up early and ride the Underground at rush hour (not fun) for 40 minutes before I even arrived at the natatorium.
Incidentally, it had been 15 years since I’d last been in London and I forgot how tight the cars are. I know that’s why they call it the Tube, but when I first entered the car at Waterloo, I had a slight panic attack because I was shoulder to shoulder and back to front with a lot of people and there was very little ventilation and it was just not a pleasant experience.
The car eventually emptied out. I got off at Stratford Station, walked through a giant indoor shopping mall that I assume was constructed just for the Olympics, cut down a few side streets and there was the Aquatics Center sitting in the middle of the Olympic Park.
I’m a bit weird I guess in that my heart generally skips a beat or two when I see an indoor pool. Some of them–like the Osaka Pool and the London Aquatics Center–are simply architecturally and even culturally interesting: here’s this huge bubble in a major urban where real estate is high-priced and scarce and it’s dedicated entirely to swimming. And given that not many people swim that much anyway and that, aside from flying, swimming is one of the most unnatural activities for a human to engage in and that these natatoriums cost a lot of money to maintain on an annual basis, I think it’s just amazing that they exist in the first place. So when they do exist and when they exist in this grand and palatial manner, I’m grateful to the largess of civic-minded people and tax payers who fund these sorts of public spaces.
I was a bit shocked when I walked in the locker room at the London Aquatics Center. The sign clearly said “Men’s Locker Room,” but I noticed that there were women in their blow drying their hair, so I quickly turned around, walked back out and re-read the sign. A few moments later, a dude walked by me and retraced my steps so I followed him in and quickly realized that the locker room was an enormous–probably 2,000 square foot–area that acted as a co-ed changing room. There were 3×3 foot changing rooms cubed and linked together across the center of the room and you just walked into one of those tiny rooms, shut the door, changed into your swim suit, put your stuff in a lock and then walked through a section where you could shower and then walk out on to the pool deck.
The pool itself was pretty crowded–I shared a lane with four other swimmers but given that the pool is 50 meters long, you hardly ever see the other swimmers except if you stop for a break at either end. And, swimmers are, by and large, decent people; that is, they don’t worm up on you if you are slower or give you dirty looks or flip you off or do rude kinds of things that drivers sometimes do to cyclists and runner. Still, having so many people in the pool and in your lane makes you a bit conscious of other people around and, at least for me, takes away from the meditative and mentally relaxing part of swimming.
Until you stand at one end of a 50-meter pool and prepare to dive in and swim to the other side, over and over again, you can’t really appreciate the athleticism and power of Olympic swimmers. Physically, I’m not that that much smaller than Phelps. I’m 6’2″, I have size 11 feet, a 6’5″ arm span and I weigh 170 lbs. Michael Phelps is 6’4″ he has an arm span of 6’7″, size 14 feet and weighs 194 lbs. I’m also not a terrible swimmer. I routinely swim 1500 meters and if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish that in around 30 minutes. That said, when I dive in the pool and start my forward crawl, I look insignificant and minuscule compared to Phelps, who cuts through the water like a shark. And that’s one of the things that is so remarkable about Olympic swimmers–they dominate the water in a way that is really beyond the scope and ability of probably 99% of the human race.
After I finished my swim, I slipped out of the pool and just stood on the deck for a few minutes, admiring the beauty of the Center and thinking about Michael Phelps and what he accomplished here.
We did other, more typically touristy things, in London and Sujata and I will get around to writing about them shortly.