Off the Deep End
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.
Houston city pools
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.
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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.
Austin, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind: T-shirts are okay.
"The only rule we have is whatever they wear has to be above the knee," says Farhad Madani, the aquatic and safety division manager of Austin's parks department. "One thing we notice, at a lot of areas -- urban areas -- a lot of ladies don't feel comfortable to be in a bathing suit and they like to put a T-shirt over their bathing suit, which we have no problem" with. Austin lifeguards also permit shorts in the water -- something that'll draw a whistled reprimand from their Houston counterparts.
Austin, with its 650 lifeguards and comparatively lax clothing policies, also beats Houston city pools in terms of size: Last year, close to a million swimmers visited the capital's 47 facilities (12 of them are wading pools). Houston had some 200,000 users in the same period.
Until this summer, you couldn't even get past the gate at Houston city pools without a swimsuit on. According to Washington, media reports on that restriction led to the change. Now the city has designated areas off to the side that allow patrons in non-swimming attire.
As for the lengthy regulations, Parks spokeswoman Gustin repeats that the focus is safety. "We would rather have a citizen complain than have a citizen drown in a pool."
That apparently goes for poolside interviews as well.
A Houston Press reporter makes it through checkpoint Charlie at the Stude Park pool complex and is soon talking with Madeline and her friends about their experiences at the muny pools -- particularly the floaty toy contraband.
Within minutes, another voice pierces the air: "Excuse me. Excuse me!" The head lifeguard has noticed the visitor's notepad. She reprimands him for not calling ahead to park headquarters to arrange for an escorted tour.
As it turns out, he's drowning in perceived infractions, the senior lifeguard alleges. This wasn't merely chatting up those around the pool -- the chief guard informs him he's violated rules by "doing business" on the property, and he's even gotten the junior lifeguards "in trouble" by talking to them.
Reeling from the regulatory blows, the writer withdraws humbly to outside the front gate, a chastened swimmer in exile.
A few minutes later, Madeline and her band of rebels come skipping out as well. She says they'd gotten bounced too, allegedly because she'd been "jumping" into the water rather than wading in.
However, the spirited defense -- the storming of the gates to demand liberty, equality, dignity -- will have to await another day.
Her dark hair still wet and stringy, she hops on one foot to shake water from her ear, then shrugs: "We're going to another pool."
They pile into a car and drive away.
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