Thursday, September 21, 2006

My Early Swimming Career & Crystal Gardens

I can’t say I was the natural water baby Canadian Sis was but my father made the effort to get me used to playing in our bathtub and then followed it up by teaching me the basics in a neighbor’s pool. By four I had started formal swimming lessons downtown at the Crystal Gardens pool, a city landmark dating back to the mid-twenties, and it was discovered there that I could swim better than most, going through two or three levels a session until I ran out of levels to take. So at the tender age of five my father took me down to the local YMCA he belonged to and with permission enrolled me into the Flying Y’s swim club as their youngest member. At the YMCA I trained, learned the competitive strokes, and participated in my first swim meets. Less than a year later, however, at a more acceptable age of six I found myself back at the Crystal Gardens pool as the newest addition to the largest swim club on the Island – the Victoria Olympians or “Vic O’s”, which belonged to the Victoria Amateur Swimming Association. This club (now competing under the name of Island Swimming) has been, and continues to be, one of the premier swim clubs in the country for over ninety years. For the rest of my swimming career the Vic O’s would be my home. Let me tell you about our pool back then, for it was no ordinary pool.

The Crystal Gardens, inspired by the famous Crystal Palace built for London’s 1851 Great Exposition and the Palm House at Kew Gardens, was covered by a roof of iron and glass, with a ballroom at one end and a dance/exhibition hall at the other, all connected by wide promenades strewn with palm trees. For many years it was claimed to be the largest indoor saltwater pool in the Empire, if not the world, and from the twenties through to the fifties the Crystal Gardens was one of the centers of social life in the city. In 1925 Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame set a 100 yard freestyle world indoor record in the pool, swimming the distance in 51.4 seconds.

The British Columbia Archives has several pictures of the Crystal Gardens on its website, including
  • Exterior view of Crystal Gardens
  • Crystal Gardens Cafe
  • Exhibition Hall View of Pool
  • Ballroom View of Pool

  • By the time I showed up, however, the pool’s glory days were long past. The use of salt water, all the rage back in the twenties as a health treatment, had been quietly set aside in the fifties in favour of fresh water, but the corrosive effects of the salt had done their damage. The pool was in a state of disrepair, peeling paint and cracked tiles everywhere, and a roof which leaked in a myriad of places. But all these things could be easily ignored by a six year old. What I couldn’t ignore was how cold the water was, water so cold it was often warmer in between sets to get out of the pool rather than cling to the sides. I remember days when I’d be sitting shivering poolside holding my feet out of the water while rain dripped down on our heads, all the while trying to listen to our coach give instructions for the next set (swimming the Crystal Gardens in the summer was wonderful though, when the sun lit up the pool so it sparkled and the heat made getting into the water enjoyable). Despite the conditions and sometimes cold I had considerable success swimming, and when my sister Canadian Sis joined me a year later she, too, became a noted swimmer. In 1971 the Club departed the soon to be closed Gardens and moved to the new Crystal Pool, a modern (and much warmer) fifty meter pool. Alas, despite the move all was not well with me. While as a child I might have been skinny, after the age of ten I failed to gain weight even though I continued to grow. By the time I was ready to enter grade eight I was nearly 175 cm (5’10”) and weighed only 44½ kg (98 lbs). My competitiveness of course suffered, going from once a top ranked swimmer nationally as a 10&U to a swimmer who could be confident of making only the backstroke finals, and certainly not medal in them. It did not seem to help my spirits that my local competition, individuals such as Steven Pickell, Ian McVay, Doug Portelance, and William Geddes, represented the cream of my age group in the country. The final blow to my swimming career came with my father’s death a few months after the Club started swimming at the new pool. The sport so closely associated with my dad had become burdensome and, after being suspended from the club for a week after failing to get in the water at an early morning practice, I left swimming – a decision which has never caused me regret. Life moves on, new experiences beckon, etc., etc. You know what I mean.

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