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The thermostat was climbing fast on a weekday afternoon when a dozen or so kids, teens, and adults wearing swimsuits and carrying towels lined up outside the Woodlawn Lake Park pool.
Within minutes of the pool’s opening, the eager swimmers had passed through a reception area, signed in with the attendant, and waded into the refreshing waters of one of San Antonio’s 24 outdoor public swimming pools.
Swimming is the fourth most popular sport or activity in the United States, behind walking, exercising with equipment, and camping, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Its popularity grows along with household income. But for those without access to a backyard or private community pool, public pools even the playing field, with no exclusive memberships or pricey entrance fees.
There are more than 300,000 public swimming pools in the U.S. The first municipal pools were constructed to clear rowdy youth from the rivers and lakes and away from the public eye, according to author Jeff Wiltse’s book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.
He wrote that pools were meant to be large bathtubs for poor and immigrant neighborhoods – a social melting pot of ethnicities, if not genders in that Victorian age. Over the years, swimming pools became chlorinated recreational refuges even as they served as hotbeds of social change.
In San Antonio, desegregation came to all of San Antonio’s public pools in 1955 after several black residents filed suit to have a segregation mandate put in place by City Council a year earlier declared unconstitutional. Just before the case was to be heard in federal court, the council unanimously voted, on Councilman Henry B. González’s motion, to rescind the ordinance.
San Antonio Swims
Last year, 322,331 men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds visited the City’s public pools, which are managed by the Parks & Recreation Department’s Recreation Manager Lyn Kinton.
Since 2001, she has managed the pools and the 320 seasonal public service attendants, pool supervisors, and lifeguards who keep watch.
The Woodlawn Lake Park pool is one of the largest and oldest of San Antonio’s public pools. It is said to have been built using stone from a demolished downtown hotel. These days, the Jefferson Terrace area pool is overseen by a staff of about 12 to 15 people.
Weekends are busiest at most pools, of course, including Woodlawn. That’s when the 4,000-square-foot pool often reaches its 325-person capacity. It is one of four so-called “regional” pools in the Parks & Rec system, opening several weeks earlier and remaining open later every summer than others.
Built in 1934, Woodlawn was most recently refurbished last year, with slides and canopies added for shade along one side, Kinton said. That’s where many parents and caregivers keep cool while they watch children splash and play.
Neighborhood resident Brenda Garcia jumps right in with her five grandchildren, ranging in age from 10 to 2. She said she brings them several times a week. “We have a pool at home,” she said. “But this is something different. They play with their friends.”
Rey Salazar, who works the night shift as a warehouse operator, drives to the pool from his home on the East Side, he said, bringing his two children and two nieces to the Woodlawn pool about once a week.
The kids like the slides; only four of San Antonio’s public pools have them. Salazar likes the size of the pool: “We live near the Southside Lions pool, and it’s smaller and more crowded,” he said.
A public service attendant at the Woodlawn pool, Rosie Moreno said she enjoys her job because of the kids. They call her “the mean one” for enforcing the rules, she said with a smile, which include wearing proper swim attire and signing in at the front desk.
Crown Jewel Pool
The pool at San Pedro Springs Park, the second-oldest municipally operated park in the country, is considered by Kinton and others as the crown jewel of San Antonio public pools. Built in 1922, it’s the largest and was at one time fed by natural springs. A favorite of many locals, the pool offers summertime swimming under the shade of majestic cypress trees, then converts to an open, natural water feature during the off-season.
On any given day, there are 14 lifeguards on duty at San Pedro Springs, often overseen by Ruben Valdez. A pool supervisor who has been working in the pool system for 13 years, Valdez is one of the longest-tenured City pool employees, having started as a lifeguard at the Elmendorf pool. (That pool closed in 2015 but will be rebuilt in 2019-20.)
“I’ve always been in the water,” he said. “There’s nothing else I wanted to do.” Valdez trains the lifeguards and enjoys passing along his skills. Recently, one of his third-year lifeguards, Tanner Zanoni, 18, was able to give life-saving aid to an 8-month-old boy who was choking while at the pool.
But stubbed toes and symptoms of heat exhaustion are the most common injury and health crises at the pools, Kinton said. The day the Rivard Report visited, a young girl walking on the pool deck stepped on a bee. There have been no drownings, Kinton said, in the 17 years she has been overseeing the pools.
“This is the best pool ever!” said Kenneth, 12, after emerging from the Cuellar Park pool one afternoon to pick up his free lunch and snack. Through the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Summer Nutrition Program, food packs have been offered in areas where more than 50 percent of children are eligible for the National School Lunch Program.
The Cuellar pool also has a separate baby pool and is one of several in the public pool system with a 10- to 13-foot diving well. The main pool is smaller than some, with capacity for 120. But Kenneth, who lives nearby, said it also has the “best” lifeguards. Children over the age of 10 can enter the pools without an adult, and he likes to visit the Cuellar pool often with his friends.
Another sizable pool in this city’s portfolio is at the scenic Roosevelt Park, near the former Lone Star Brewery and Brackenridge High School. Roosevelt has capacity for 300 people, but parking for cars is at a premium on weekends when Roosevelt fills with picnics and family gatherings.
The pool is about the same size and age as Woodlawn but has a legend of its own. Kinton said word has it that the pool once hosted practice sessions for the Olympic trials in the 1940s or ’50s. That would perhaps explain why more than half the pool is encircled by stadium seating, now enjoyed by poolside loungers.
The newest public pool run by the City isn’t really new. In 2011, the Heritage Association on the far West Side donated its neighborhood park and pool, and the City renovated both the swimming pool and bathhouse for use by the public.
Cost and Hours
The City budgets $800,000 annually for staffing San Antonio’s public pools. Kinton said the average cost to maintain a pool for the nine-week summer season is $60,000.
Entry is free for everyone at all San Antonio pools. Most cities around the country charge at least a small fee, Kinton said. For instance, Austin pools have a daily entry fee of between $1 and $3 for residents, more for nonresidents. Swim lessons also are offered free of charge in San Antonio, and this year, 2,500 children are enrolled.
“The pools are costly to operate,” Kinton said. “But in San Antonio, it’s a quality of life issue. It supports people getting out and being active, socializing, and having family time. But we are very unique” in having no fee.
Spread throughout the city, most of the 25 pools are open from about 1 or 2 p.m. until 7 or 8 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays. Those somewhat limited hours are because of funding limitations and because the system relies on a workforce made up of high school and college students.
When children and the lifeguards go back to school and the pools close, Kinton starts the process all over again, getting ready for next summer: recruiting and training new workers, evaluating pools and procedures, and planning updates and maintenance.
But before the whistle blows and the gates close on another pool season, Parks & Rec will host is annual Back to School Splash Bash August 4 at the Kingsborough Pool on the South Side with activities in and out of the pool and chances to win new school supplies.