In The Swim

The Rose Bowl Aquatics Center is a world-class, year-round outdoor haven for swimmers.

BY: Solvej Schou

PHOTOS: Fernando Cerda


Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 9.51.58 PMOn a typically bright day in Pasadena, Karen Smith, wearing a floppy pink hat, kicked heartily alongside other women donning flotation belts for a water fitness class in the deep end of the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center’s Olympic-size recreation pool, one of three pools in the outdoor facility.

Birds chirped in nearby oak trees in surrounding Brookside Park. The San Gabriel Mountains loomed to the north; the lush Arroyo Seco stretched to the south. The San Marino-based forensic economist, 54, was in her element. She and her husband, 23-year-old son and 25-year-old daughter have called the Aquatics Center—which last year celebrated its 25th anniversary—their second home for 14 years. Smith goes six days a week to take aqua fitness classes, swim laps and mingle.

“When it gets cloudy out, it’s just beautiful,” she says. “With indoor pools there’s always the smell of chlorine and it’s confining. Here, there’s fresh air. Swimming laps is great because it’s meditative and you can zone out. You can be in the moment and ruminate on your life. It’s a full-body workout and it’s aerobic.”

Open 360 days a year, 100 hours a week, the Aquatics Center not only attracts longtime regulars such as Smith, but an impressive array of people. They range from infants, kids and adults taking swimming lessons to former Olympians on the Masters Swim Team zooming through laps. Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 9.52.28 PMExpectant moms, senior citizens and those with injuries or arthritis do both high energy and lower impact classes with names such as Bump and Beyond, Aqua Zumba and Shallow Water Fitness.

There are monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual membership passes, and daily adult lap swim, senior and young adult passes. On average, 450,000 visitors a year pass through the center, whose pools are heated year-round, explains executive director Kurt Knop.

The 50-meter-long Olympic-size competition pool is heated to 80 degrees, the recreation and diving pool—up to 17 feet deep, with 25-yard lanes down part of its width—is heated to 86 degrees, and the smaller therapy pool is heated to 91 degrees. The heat, buoyancy and resistance of the water work to reduce pressure on joints, increase circulation and allow more free movement in different directions, versus running, according to Knop.

Also, most people who come to the center are not “body beautiful, ready to go,” he notes. “There are body types all over the map, and a program for everybody.” Don’t expect just Michael Phelps lookalikes strutting around.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 9.52.39 PM66-year-old endurance swimmer and author Diana Nyad, who in 2013 became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, and trained for that trek—her fifth try—at the Aquatics Center, still occasionally goes there to do laps, says Knop.

“She could get in the competition pool’s gutter lane and swim for eight hours at a time and not be bothered and have her lunch pail at the end of the pool,” he says. “She found this to be a pool where she could train in peace. Her story is really inspirational to everyone here.”

While the center becomes packed with camp attendees during the summer, during the fall, winter and spring it’s calmer, as members enjoy the contrast of a heated pool and cooler weather, rain or shine. With swimmers already wet, rain just adds to the outdoor experience. If there’s lightning, says Knop, the pools are evacuated.

Seated next to the therapy pool, water fitness coordinator Wendy Kendall ponders her 25 years working at the center. She teaches a 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. aqua running class called Movin’ Water for endurance and core strengthening. The center also includes yoga classes, a weight room and a cafe. “Overall, you’re dealing with people who are probably in their best state of mind in the pool,” she says. “If you have a family with a lot of different needs, there are a lot of opportunities here.”
At the end of a swim session or class, most people hit one of the center’s two whirlpool spas. “For a lot of people that’s the highlight of their workout, the big reward,” Smith says.

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