Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A multicultural morning at the Granville Pool

It was the tiles that drew me to Granville Pool; 1930s hexagonal-shaped with a border in red and chequerboard blue and white. Bruce discovered them when he swam there after work, and a few days later I was heading west along Parramatta Road to Sydney's fourth oldest Olympic pool after Enfield, North Sydney and Bankstown (RIP).

As I parked the car I noticed a group of older people doing tai chi near the original entrance pavilion. The instructor, an almost 70-year-old Chinese-Australian man said they were there every morning at 7.30. "You should come and join us," he said.

I thanked him for his invitation and headed to the pool's newer modular glass entrance where I read that Margaret Whitlam swam 100 yards of breaststroke at the official opening in 1936 and in the 60s local boy Paul Hogan was part of a comedy diving troupe.

When I asked the woman on the front desk what was left of the original complex, she said all the pools have been retiled and done up and the 50-metre has been turned into a 25-metre. "But along the side wall they've kept a few of the original tiles."

Inside I couldn't see much evidence of the 1930s art deco style except in the blonde and red brick entrance building and change rooms, which architects' Rudder and Grout designed as a walled compound. Just as I was about to ask a lifeguard where the tiles were I spotted them underground in the plant and equipment room. A sign on the glass said I was looking into the deep end of the 1936 Olympic-sized pool where the 10-metre diving tower and a water slide used to be.

They reminded me of the tiles at Enfield Pool except for the mottled red edge, an individual touch at Granville Pool.  I took photos of the surviving lanes 3,4 and 5 and then sat on a bench by the 25-metre pool where I met two sisters about to start their stroke correction class. They told me they learnt to swim at Guildford Pool when they first came to Australia in 1978 as refugees from Laos. "You should go there," they said after I told them about my interest in pools. "Lots of refugees and migrants learnt to swim there."

I left them to start their class and moved into the 50-metre pool as boys from Granville Boys High streamed in and sat on the grandstand near the 'John Devitt Swimming Centre' sign, honouring the local champion who won gold at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

I watched the board-shorted boys start their lessons and then pushed off for the first of my 20 laps. When I finished one of the Laotian sisters joined me in the pool and we stood in the shallows and continued our chat. She said her family lived in Villawood Detention Centre when they first arrived in Australia and then they settled in Cabramatta. "My parents are still there. Just us kids have moved around a bit."

I asked her why she and her sister don't go by their Laotian names. "Because we got teased too much. We got sick of it," she said.  She said racism used to be more subtle but now it was in your face. "People come up to me and say, 'go back to your own country'. My younger cousins who were born here say, 'This is our country'." She said some people in her family are a bit scared and timid but she doesn't let people get away with saying things like that and always responds in some way.

I left her to swim some laps and headed to the change rooms where a group of Lebanese women were preparing for their lesson. They told me they were into their third term of lessons and now they could swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke. They said in Lebanon there was the beach but no pools, and the focus there was on going to school.

"But now we are here, there's no reason why we should be the only ones who don't swim at the beach. Just because we are Muslim and don't show our bodies, there is no reason why we can't swim. And it's so relaxing," they said.

On the way out I spent time looking at the historical display and read that at the opening on 10 October 1936, Mayor JS Fielding called the pool, 'a wonderful possession for Granville'. He hoped it would be 'a place where the adult population will find recreation and the children of today and tomorrow will be able to learn the art of swimming and life-saving under the best possible conditions'.

At a cafe in Granville's main street I told a waitress about my experience at the pool, where people from all different nationalities were leaning to swim. "That's good when they try and learn the culture of here, rather than staying in their old ways," she said.

On the way back to the car, I stopped outside Granville Boys High and read the school motto, 'Safe Respectful Learners' and thought of my father's annual Christmas Day speech where he always ended with the same words: "We should be thankful we were the lucky ones to be born in Australia."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A new perspective on the Dawny Swim

Last Sunday I got a different perspective on the Dawny Swim watching it from Cockatoo Island.

In 2011 and 2012 I took part in the 2.4 km swim from Balmain's Dawn Fraser Baths and around Cockatoo, and I was going to enter again this year.  But when I was deliberating about whether my head was in the right place to swim, my husband Bruce suggested watching it from Cockatoo Island.

"What a great idea," I said. "And then I'll know what I'm swimming around when I do it next year."

The rain bucketed down the night before the swim, and I went to bed thinking it'll be cancelled but the next morning the word on Ocean Swims was the 'Dawny' was on. We got ready quickly and caught the train into Circular Quay and then the 8.37 ferry to Cockatoo via King Street Wharf.

When we docked at Cockatoo we hurried across to the eastern side of the island for the start of the swim. As the first of the swimmers came towards us I realised I was not in the best spot to get good shots. I wanted to get closer to the submarine crane on the edge of the island but that area was cordoned off and there were signs saying 'Keep out."

Bruce went to find a better spot and then I noticed a gap in the fence and squeezed in.  I stood near the crane and took photos of the first swimmers to reach the island led out by Mick on a kayak, who told me it wasn't cold in.

I followed the red, blue, green and yellow caps along the side of the island and then spotted my squad friend Sue in black.

"Sue, Sue," I called out and she stopped for a second and waved back.

And then I decided it was time to get out of this cordoned off area but before I could find a gap in the fence three men arrived on the scene. They wanted to know how I got in and demanded to see some ID, which I didn't have as it was in the backpack with Bruce. I told them I only came in to photograph the people doing the swim. "Show us your photos," they said. I clicked through until they were satisfied there were no shots of their timber crates, just of the swim. "It's illegal what you did," they said to me as I hurried away.  "Sorry, I won't do it again," I said.

When I reached Bruce he showed me where the competitors had swum under the wharf instead of the usual route around it. "I might get claustrophobic swimming under there," I said.

We realised the first swimmers would almost have reached the other side of the island so we hurried to get a good vantage spot; passing the rows of tents and old beam bending machines used to make massive plates to build the hulls of ships that reminded me of the statues on Easter Island.

We jogged through a tunnel carved out of the sandstone in 1915, later modified to become an air-raid shelter during World War II.

We emerged from the tunnel near the old Sutherland Dock completed in 1890, and hurried down to the Camber Wharf that faces the Dawn Fraser Baths and White Horse Point.

We made it in time to see the first swimmers complete their circumnavigation of the island. As they increased their pace and powered back to the jetty, the sky turned a deep grey and the rain started to fall. The visibility rapidly reduced and we noticed a few swimmers wide out from the island drifting towards Drummoyne and the Iron Cove Bridge.  Fortunately the boats and kayakers directed them back on course like cattle dogs herding sheep. 

When the rain got heavier Bruce decided it was time to take shelter, and for awhile we stayed dry in a stone building that used to be a shipwright's shed.

Eventually the rain eased and I headed back to the wharf where a group of swimmers were discussing the right way to way to go. "Head to the yellow buoy," said John on a kayak, who paddled over to me for a chat.

"What's it like in," I asked. "It's a bit choppy around the bend there," he said, "but the water temperature is good." And then I spotted Sue again and a bit later Jude, another one of the group that swims evening squad at Leichhardt Pool.

As we waited for the last swimmers to emerge around the bend, the rain stopped and the sky returned to a light grey.  Seagulls gathered on the edge and squawked as we watched a yellow cap man amble in. He was in last place but Bruce was impressed with his relaxed style and reckoned he was going to overtake the others in front of him.

As the tailenders completed the swim we walked back to the northern side for something to eat.

Revived after our coffee and bacon and eggs, we explored some of the 18 hectares of space full of crinums and jacarandas in flower, timber and sandstone, iron and tin, and buildings from the island's convict, ship-building and maritime past.

And now it's a place where every second year the Biennale is held, where campers come and stay overnight, where seagulls nest, where films are made, and where you can have a game of lawn tennis or stay in one of the renovated, original buildings.

It's a fascinating place but when the rain started to fall again we decided we'd explore the entire island another time.

As we waited for the ferry, I thought about today's 'Dawny' swimmers and how they'd have that sense of achievement you get after an open water swim, but I was glad that this year I had a new experience watching the swim.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Locals party at opening of new Petersham Pool

Petersham marked the re-opening of the Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre yesterday with a big pool party.

The celebrations started with a traditional smoking ceremony from indigenous elder Aunty Jenny, who led a trail of kids in cossies around the centre's new 25-metre pool, toddler's pool and water play area.

Aunty Jenny's 'welcome to country' was followed by a few words from Diane Barker, a relative of the pool's namesake. Ms Barker said her great, great aunt had forged ahead in her chosen sport at a time when women weren't encouraged to swim competitively.

Fanny Durack was the first Australian woman to win a gold medal in swimming at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.  She was also a resident of Douglas Street, Stanmore, just up the road from the pool and her story is on show at the redeveloped centre.

Jo Haylen, the new Mayor of Marrickville said she was very excited that, "today we are having a pool party in Petersham" as bringing people together in their communities was one of the issues she had campaigned on.

After Mayor Haylen unveiled the plaque recording the official opening on Fanny Durack's 124th birthday, the winners of the council's competition to be the first to swim in the pool made their way to the deep end.

Kelly Pipe was selected to christen the pool with her great grandchildren Lachlan, Aimee and Taleah and friend Margaret after submitting this entry: "I'm an old duck and my greatest attraction is water so why not let me be the first to swim in your pond. Quack Quack!"

Then the pool party began with beach balls and Paddle Pops, water melon and sausage sandwiches and lots of fun and games in the big and little pools.

And what was the verdict on the redevelopment? While many felt there needed to be more seating and covered areas and there was a bit of nostalgia for the previous 33-metre pool, most were very happy with the new facilities.

As Kelly Pipe said: "It's fabulous!"

For more information on the Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre including opening hours and entry fees click here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Birthday swim at Coogee's McIver's Ladies' Baths

As a birthday present to myself last week I went for a swim at McIver's Ladies' Baths.

I had visited the Coogee pool a few times before but this was the first time I was diving in.

Mid-week, McIver's is a peaceful spot where breaststroke is the preferred style or a leisurely backstroke.

A few also don caps and goggles and lap close to the chains where the waves wash in.

Others channel Valerie Taylor in their snorkels and masks and gaze at the underwater treasures.

When I pushed off into the blue-green water I did a slow breaststroke to the northern end where I stood on a submerged rock and looked back to Coogee Beach

I watched a surfer paddle by just outside the borders of the pool, and delighted in the white water gushing in and out and moving me about. 

And then I brought my camera into the pool and snapped all the beauty that abounds above and below the water.

As I dried off after my swim, I talked to a woman who told me it was also her first time at this cocoon-like, women-only pool.

"I can't believe I've lived in Sydney all these years and only discovered it now," she said.

For more about McIver's Baths read my earlier blog here.