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The pool's rules

The Misfits: Swimming pool lanes etiquette

Brenda Weiss, in the silver cap, shares the center lane with Penny Hannallah, who swims five days a week, during a lunchtime session this month at the Montgomery Aquatic Center in North Bethesda.
Brenda Weiss, in the silver cap, shares the center lane with Penny Hannallah, who swims five days a week, during a lunchtime session this month at the Montgomery Aquatic Center in North Bethesda. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Appropriately clad in a Speedo, swim cap and nose plugs, Bob Axelrod told me a story.

Not too long ago, pals of his planned to practice at the Wilson Aquatic Center in Northwest Washington, but when they hopped into the pool, they realized they had a problem: a woman trudging along at roughly the speed of a sea slug. As Axelrod, 61, explains: "So, one of them politely comes up to her and says, 'Ma'am, this is the fast lane.' Her response was, 'I'm going as fast as I can.' "

Ba-dum-bum-ching! Except it's no laughing matter to serious swimmers like Axelrod, who's on the Masters team at the National Capital YMCA (along with my husband) in downtown Washington. Just as tourists who clog the left lanes of Metro escalators can wreak havoc on a morning commute, so can clueless freestylers mess up a workout. That's why today we're diving into the world of swimming pool etiquette.

The basics of lap-swimming are fairly simple. Two people can split a lane down the middle and stay out of each other's way. Once another person jumps in, the pattern automatically switches to circle swimming (that means stay to the right in a counterclockwise pattern). You can pass on the left after tapping the foot of the person ahead of you.

It's also critical to understand the lay of the land -- er, water. Almost all pools have their slowest lanes on each side and get progressively faster toward the middle. Many pools have signs designating the speed of a lane, but figuring out where you belong is a bit subjective. What is "slow"? "Medium"? "Fast"? "Very fast?" No one really knows. It's up to you to scope out what's happening around you and determine whether you need to switch.

The walls at the ends of the pool may look like a good place to take a quick break, but they're also where other folks plant their feet to do a flip turn. It's fine to rest there; just be sure to scoot over to the side and keep the middle of your lane as clear as possible.

Not too complicated, right? But when people don't know the rules, or decide not to follow them, it can make quite a splash. "One time, there were two guys on the verge of a fistfight in the pool. Definitely words were exchanged," says 27-year-old Travis Rothway, a coach on the National Capital Y's Masters team. Although he's never had a confrontation quite like that, Rothway understands why it happens. "I've gotten pressure to leave early and not completed my workout," he says.

What casual swimmers -- like the sea slug and me -- often don't understand is that the competitive folks aren't just doing laps. They're trying to stick to specific intervals or complete drills. Having to pass frequently and skip turns interrupts that. Also, many faster swimmers are hesitant to do the foot tap because they don't want an inexperienced person freaking out about a stranger with a fetish coming up behind them.

Slowpokes don't deserve all the blame, however. Doug Fox, manager of aquatics for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, says it seems several people missed the sharing lesson back in kindergarten. "Some will do butterfly and hit other people in the face or just miss them," he says, while others will flat-out tell others they're not welcome in their lane. Once, a guy came to him complaining that "senior citizen swim" was preventing him from exercising. Of course, there's no such thing -- it was just crafty retirees scheming to keep a lane all to themselves.

Faced with such problems, Fox has developed an etiquette poster that's scheduled to go up at county pools in the next few weeks. "We realized we needed something," he says.

Similar posters are also in the works for the District's Wilson Aquatic Center, which has been packed since opening last summer. With just eight lanes set up in the 50-meter pool, constant sharing is a given, so Manager Cecilia Washington has done her best to maintain peace. The speed designation signs at the end of the lanes are massive, and etiquette rule sheets are plastered everywhere: in the locker rooms, above the water fountains and around the pool deck.

"It's just to let everyone know how to keep order," Washington says. "It's like putting up stop signs. I'm controlling traffic." The giant lettering on the new posters will make the message even harder to miss.

According to 36-year-old Sara Kropf, who lives just a few blocks from Wilson and swims laps every weekend, most people follow proper procedure anyway. But to really understand how to get along, the adults might want to look at the kids' pool. "Everyone's very well behaved," she says. "They all go the same speed, I guess."

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