But beneath the calm, chlorinated surface, there is conflict. A spat over the length of the lap lanes has roiled the waters.
On one end: swimmers who want shorter lanes to accommodate more people and different activities. On the other: a loose coalition led by competitive athletes who want to keep the status quo because Wilson is the city’s only indoor pool with the 50-meter lanes they consider ideal for training.
Both sides want to know: Whose pool is it, anyway?
It’s not the biggest issue in the city, by any stretch or butterfly stroke. But it does lead to another question: Should a public pool — and by extension the District government — serve the broadest range of residents or an underserved minority?
The Wilson Aquatic Center is considered by many to be the crown jewel of a massive overhaul of the District’s parks and recreation facilities launched during the tenure of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), a triathlete who with each new bike lane seemed determined to make the city over in his uber-fit image.
The Wilson facility, where Fenty has trained, measures 54,765 square feet and sits just off Wisconsin Avenue, behind a Whole Foods Market and one block from the Tenleytown Metro stop. The old Wilson pool, built in 1978, was closed in July 2003 because of structural problems. After a series of hearings, the city and residents chose the Olympic-size pool. Two years and $34.7 million later, the new facility opened in August 2009.
The length of the lanes depends on where the lane dividers are placed. The pool is roughly twice as long as it is wide, so when the dividers are placed lengthwise, the lanes are 50 meters. When they are placed widthwise, the lanes are 25 yards, or roughly half of 50 meters.
With 50-meter lanes, “it becomes a facility for fewer people rather than more,” said Barbara Baldwin, 70, of the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood, after she finished her swim the other day. “It’s a community facility. It should be able to accommodate a variety of swimmers.”
The Department of Parks and Recreation says it kept the lanes longer after a 2009 survey was inconclusive. (The exception is when 25-yard lanes are necessary for Wilson High School students.)
Some of the 50-meter advocates are competitive triathletes who need to pile up the miles. But, “even if you are swimming just to stay in shape, longer feels better,” says Michael Jacoby, 48, of Kent, a triathlete who trains at Wilson once a week.
“It’s a jewel,” he says of Wilson. “We can’t let it go.”
Some trace the current controversy — which has led to dueling petition drives — to Fenty’s defeat last fall. Shortly after the election, e-mails and phone calls requesting shorter lanes at Wilson started to trickle in to the recreation department. By June, debate was raging on neighborhood e-mail lists, and there were heated words.