Adult lap swim. It's one of those special privileges that city-dwellers are afforded during the most hellishly humid days of summer, when the mornings get bright and hot early, and the nights take forever to cool down.
For decades, adult New Yorkers have been able to swim in the City's massive outdoor pools, inverted cathedrals for those who worship the right to public space. Early Bird and Night Owl hours, from 7 to 8:30 a.m. and 7 to 8:30 p.m., respectively, allow adults to exercise without children clogging up the lanes (children, by the way, run the show the rest of the day).
Adult Lap Swim was discontinued in the summer of 2020, for obvious public health reasons. And yet, even with the COVID vaccine and millions of federal dollars flowing to the City last summer, it still wasn't restored. Now, the decades-long program faces possible perdition.
The Parks Department tells Hell Gate that a shortage of lifeguards is to blame.
"We are experiencing quite a challenge recruiting enough qualified people to pass the requirements to become an NYC Lifeguard and that has not been any easier in the wake of the pandemic," spokesperson Meghan Lalor told Hell Gate. "We certainly want to host extra programs like lap swim and Learn to Swim, but we can only do what can be accommodated safely based on the number of lifeguards present."
Lalor says the department won't make an official determination until July 4, when the pool season will be well underway (traditionally, public registration for the free program began in early June). It doesn't help that the City's lifeguard corps was the subject of an absolutely damning investigation by New York magazine, followed by an equally distressing Department of Investigation report, which showed how the Parks Department has allowed the lifeguard program to be run like a fiefdom by its union chief. Recruitment and allocation of lifeguards has proven difficult for Parks, which is bound to a now-expired agreement with the lifeguards' union.
That being said, many of these issues were present well before the pandemic, and still, Adult Lap Swim persisted.
"We're living in a period of diminished public space, and public institutions are more and more difficult to access," said avid lap swimmer and filmmaker Nadia Awad, who lives in Brooklyn. "People who can't afford to go to gyms could always access the pool and get a workout, and you would find the motley crew of adult lap swimmers that is New York."
Awad has enjoyed summer lap swim for the past decade. She even participated in the lap swim challenge, where people who swam 25 miles or more over the course of a summer would receive a free T-shirt commemorating their achievement. (She fell short, but had plans to try again.)
"You would see Orthodox Jewish women swimming, older Asian men, hipster-ish thirty-somethings training for triathlons. It's a place where so much of New York is represented," Awad recalled. Awad had reached out to the department herself the past two years asking if lap swim was coming back, but was told there wasn't funding to support lifeguard training.
Facing a third summer without Adult Lap Swim, Awad is concerned about what happens when a city loses free programs like this one.
"I see this as more than just a physical activity, but truly a part of public health infrastructure," she said. "These pools allow people in dense urban areas to have a fun summer activity—this is part of our city life and to watch parts of it get stripped away, especially in this moment, is frustrating."
New "public" swimming pools, like the one built at the Crown Heights Armory which opened last year, carry a serious price tag, as opposed to the free Olympic-sized pools that dot the five boroughs, which are legacies of the Works Progress Administration.
Hell Gate has reached out to the fitness-minded mayor about the continued cancellation of Adult Lap Swim, but has yet to hear back. Mayor Eric Adams's latest budget cuts $20 million from the Parks budget compared to last year. Any potential restoration of the program might be fighting the headwinds of austerity.
But lap-swimmer Awad believes Adams would change tune if he understood the ethereal power of a sunset swim.
"It makes you feel like a king a little bit, being able to swim laps in the middle of the city after working all day," she said. "It's just really nice and not something we should just let vanish."