What We Talk About When We Talk About Water Temperature

Life is complicated here at the 10 Mile Swim blog. My home pool has been closed for a month. I’ve been swimming at Westside Aquatic Complex — a beautiful pool — but it’s not easy for me to get there during their open hours. As work gets busier, it’s harder for me to swim. I hate it.

However, there has been one pleasant surprise in the midst of it all: the water heater at WAC broke.

At any pool there is a conflict between those who think the pool is too hot and those who think it is too cold. This conflict is always present, even if it’s under the surface (ha ha) and even though the participants — the people using the pool — have no control over the water temperature anyway. But in any pool on any given day, someone may be planning a Very Angry Letter to the management about how no one could possibly be expected to exercise under such conditions.

(Of course, this is only true of pools that are temperature controlled. Barton Springs Pool in Austin is naturally 68 degrees F every day, all year around. I don’t know who you’d complain to if you don’t like it — the naiads of Barton Springs, I guess.)

The conflict over water temperature divides the users of the pool into two clear teams: the lap swimmers want it colder; the walkers, floaters, and water aerobics people want it warmer. If a person in the locker room complains that the water is too cold, I know that person is not a swimmer. For that reason, I never say anything about the water temperature to anyone I don’t know. It would be safer to bring up religion or politics.

Unfortunately, I live in a part of the world where pools are usually kept warm, too warm for lap swimmers. My home lap swim pool is usually 82-83 degrees F — with a therapy pool that is kept at 88-90 degrees right next to it. In contrast, the American Red Cross says lap swim temperature should be between 78-82. FINA sets the same range for pool competitions, including Olympic swimming.

I rarely get to swim in a pool under 82 degrees — unless the water heater is broken.

My first sign that something wonderful had happened was when a woman in the locker room said the pool was cold. Now, many people in the locker room complain about how cold the main pool is at Westside Aquatic (even though there is a warm therapy pool there as well), so I didn’t think much of it. But when I walked on deck, another swimmer came up to warn me. The water is really cold, he said. It took his breath away when he jumped in.

I became hopeful.

A white board had been placed near the pool. Someone had written in big letters, “POOL TEMPERATURE 76.”

I said to the lifeguard on duty, “People say the water is really cold.”

The lifeguard said, “They’re a bunch of babies.”

My opinion of the lifeguard — already high — rose higher.

When I dove in, the water was cold, wonderfully cold. But within 300 yards, it felt like the perfect temperature. If I lingered at the wall for too long, I started to get chilly. So I didn’t linger at the wall.

When swimmers talk about cold water, we are asserting our identity as “real” swimmers. Real swimmers swim hard enough to raise their body temperatures. Warm water is fine for children’s lessons and water aerobics classes and cocktail sipping. But if you’re in the pool to swim and swim hard, you want it cool.

The water at WAC was cold Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It was terrific. I told the people at the desk — who were swamped with complaints — not to rush on fixing on the water heater. Then I traveled for Thanksgiving, and on Friday I swam in a YMCA pool in Atlanta that was easily 10 degrees warmer. And the water aerobics class there looked a little cranky. Maybe it was too hot even for them.

Any pool is a good pool when you’re in it. But a cool pool is a great pool.

4 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Water Temperature

  1. My swimming pool is Puget Sound: high fifties in the late summer, mid 40s in the late winter. The Notorious Alki Swimmers and I swim year round. Sure, the first five or ten minutes is cold. But then you warm up your core— by swimming— and your skin kind of goes numb. In the winter, when the air is colder than the water, you don’t want to get out. As I age, cold water becomes even more welcome. A swimming pool with a broken heater would just seem tepid. But after 1000 yards, I’d be sweating.

    1. Puget Sound sounds fantastic! The coldest I’ve ever swum was in the North Sea – low 50s in June a couple years ago. But I don’t often get the opportunity to swim in cold water. Maybe I should make it happen this winter. Thanks for coming by the blog!

  2. I’ve been swimming in the SF Bay regularly since this past Spring and it’s getting down to the mid-fifties now. That is starting to feel pretty cold to me. I hear it gets as low as the mid-high forties by February. I don’t know if I’ll still be swimming in it then, but I’m hopeful. By contrast the pool I swim in (high 70s) feels deliciously warm.

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