Off the Deep End

Nobody seems more nitpicky on rules than Houston's pool Nazis

The black fence around the perimeter rises up well beyond Yao Ming heights, the rods curling outward at the top like spikes. The bathrooms in front stink of chlorine and urine. There's only one way outta this joint and one way in.

Fourteen-year-old Madeline (her real name has been changed to protect her identity) lines up with other arrivals. She signs in at the desk and provides name and phone number, pursuant to protocol. The guard looks her up and down.

But Madeline and her preteen girlfriends are up to no good today -- they're brazenly trying to pass through this checkpoint with smuggled contraband that would make Manuel Noriega blush. Fortunately, the staff lifeguards, the last line of defense in the war against watery terror, catch on to the ruse.

The Dunlavy pool on a recent Saturday afternoon: Guards relax and swimmers are penned in.
Daniel Kramer
The Dunlavy pool on a recent Saturday afternoon: Guards relax and swimmers are penned in.

Sure, Madeline's gang gets in to the Stude Park municipal swimming pool complex with their armfuls of menacing fluorescent floaty toys (water wings, the gall!). However, an alert lifeguard halts them before the toys hit the pool water -- only seconds from a serious infraction of Item 11 of the municipal pools' rules.

Not even the heavy, humid air on this Saturday afternoon seems as stifling as the city's lengthy regulations regarding swimming.

"They're, like, so strict," says a teenage Hispanic girl outside. "They don't let you do anything."

As the city's formal statement proclaims, safety is the foremost concern of the Parks and Recreation Department: "To that end we follow the most stringent safety guidelines…"

The result is evident a few miles away from the Stude complex, at the much smaller muny watering hole known as the Dunlavy pool.

At peak hours, the pool might be jammed with people trying to actually swim among the crowd. That's because more than half of the pool is off-limits to users. At the five-foot mark, a rope separates the shallow end from the deep end. Patrons cannot cross the line.

According to Greg Washington, the city's aquatics superintendent, that rule has always been in effect for all pools, even prior to the diving board crackdown of recent years. The city removed low boards at 37 of its 43 pools following the 1995 summer season.

Parks spokeswoman Marene Gustin explains that "All the rules and regulations go to respond to national industry safety regulations. It's about keeping people safe. That's the bottom line."

However, the state doesn't even necessitate closing off the deep end. In 1999, the Texas Department of Health updated its policy on public pools for the first time in 34 years. "There are absolutely no requirements to either close or open a deep end," says Katie Moore, branch chief of the state's public pool program. "That would certainly be management's discretion. They can open or close them. It may be a staffing issue."

This spring, the city pools narrowly averted a late opening day when Mayor Bill White restored funding to the parks department budget, money that had been slashed by the Lee Brown administration. The funds guaranteed a full swimming season from Memorial Day to Labor Day for all but five pools. Thirty-eight pools operate this summer with 232 lifeguards.

The city's rationale for closing the deep ends seems to be geared as much to the well-being of guards as patrons.

Those who complain about the closure are shown a 2003 internal city memo titled "Diving Well Policy." It states that "If two or more patrons get into trouble in the deep and are separate from one another, neither of which will have the ability to stand, the lifeguard will have to make a choice as to who he/she will rescue…Their lives will be in jeopardy as well as the health of our staff. Because one of the patrons might not survive if two or more need lifeguard assistance, then the lifeguard will surely be affected emotionally."

But the potential for mental anguish among guards is apparently still alive in Dallas, where patrons are free to dog-paddle above the great abyss.

"We removed [the diving boards], but people can still swim in the deep ends," says Robin Steinshnider, the community program coordinator in the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. "If they're a child, we usually make 'em do a swim test first."

Until last summer, Houston had kept open its six high diving boards -- some as tall as ten meters -- at the Olympic-sized pools, even as other municipalities dismantled theirs because of safety concerns.

Parks representative Gustin says the diving wells are "referred to in recreational circles as 'drowning pools.' " She adds that no one has ever drowned in a City of Houston pool during operating hours.

Even penned into the shallow part of the pool, users face other stringent city codes.

While the medical profession issues skin cancer warnings to those who go unprotected in the sun, the city will boot out anybody who tries to wear a T-shirt in a municipal pool. The stated reason is that T-shirts can balloon up, covering a swimmer's face, or cause strangulation if grabbed.

There is a formal exemption form that can be filed with the aquatic office. Just make sure it includes the signature of either a physician or clergy member (notarization is not yet required). And the exempted swimmers will still be ousted unless the T-shirts are white and contain no words.

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