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For kids outside the city, Memorial Day weekend meant the pools opened. Downtown, it just meant Memorial Day weekend.
Only two of the 20 outdoor pools run by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation were swimmable last weekend. Several more are scheduled to open this Saturday. Many won’t open until June 16. They’ll start closing Aug. 18, and only five will stay open through Labor Day.
All public outdoor pools in Fairfax, Arlington, and Montgomery Counties opened, as scheduled, last weekend. They’ll all be open on Labor Day.
Other than the city’s poolless youth, the decline of swimming holes in the District hurts nobody so much as it hurts Bruce Bradford.
“As parents, we’re always saying to kids how rough things were when we were coming up,” says Bradford. “I can say we had it better. At least the pools were open on Memorial Day. For me, summer was always synonymous with swimming.”
Officially, Bradford is the commissioner of swimming for D.C. public schools. That puts him in charge of all the competitive aquatics programs in the high schools. Scholastic sports, in general, are hurting in the District these days. The era of the jock being the big man on campus is long gone in this city. The school where Bradford coaches, H.D. Woodson, doesn’t even bother giving out letters to its athletes, because awardees stopped wearing them. But few sports have sunk as far as swimming, which Bradford now says is “on life support” in the city.
Only five schools, including H.D. Woodson, fielded swim teams this year. And, for the first time, Woodson couldn’t even put together a boys team. For years, he’d taken kids on his team who wanted merely to learn how to swim. Coaches in the suburbs, where competitive swimming programs are run in private clubs in nearly every subdivision, likely never have to face that. But despite the presence of a large indoor pool on the school’s Northeast campus, not a single male student came to the tryouts.
“I would stand outside the door to my pool at school, and as kids would walk by in the hallway, I’d stop them and ask, ‘Excuse me, do you know where the pool is?’ and they’d just look at me,” he says. “They had no idea. Nobody even knows that there’s a pool in their own school.”
The apathy kids show his program and othersCardozo, Bradford’s alma mater, also has its own indoor pool, but it didn’t have a swimming team this yearis a predictable outgrowth of the nonemphasis D.C.’s politicians and citizens place on the city’s public pools.
According to Michael Walker, aquatics facility chief for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, Memorial Day pool openings went away in the late ’80s, during a budget crunch. And though times are far rosier now, economically speaking, there’s no great cry from anybody to spend the money necessary to keep the pools open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, as in outlying jurisdictions.
“People at the parks department are my friends. I worked with them at pools in this city for 20 years, so I know how hard those people work at this,” he says. “But they’re not getting the support they need. But whoever there is to blame for this, the bottom line is that the kids in this city put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the kids in Montgomery County or Fairfax County or any of the counties around here, but they get treated differently….When you look at what kids get in the District compared to what they get outside the city, you see that ‘separate but equal’ still exists. The whole thing really makes me sad.”
Bradford learned to swim at Banneker Pool as a youngster and swam competitively in an organized league that no longer exists. And, in high school, though he never needed a particular stroke to keep from drowning, swimming saved him.
Both his parents had died before he’d finished Cardozo. The swimming coach there became his surrogate father and kept him in line. When Bradford felt directionless after graduation, his coach garnered him a swimming scholarship to Tennessee State. Bradford freestyled, backstroked, and breaststroked his way through college. He got two degrees in education from the school and came back to D.C. wanting to give something back to the city and swimming.
He’s coached at Woodson since 1972, the year it opened. But after nearly three decades of trying to promote the sport that means so much to him, Bradford is, admittedly, beaten down by the tide.
“In my life, swimming was the gasoline that got me where I was going,” he says. “But now, for the kids today, there are no service stations open.”
For several years, there has been talk of tearing Woodson down and building a new school on the site. Bradford recently met with an architect to look at a proposed blueprint for the next school.
There was no pool in the plans.
“[The architect] said, ‘Oh, I heard [the present pool]’s underused,’” Bradford says. “The thought of doing away with this pool after all my years herewell, I can’t imagine that. I’m going to fight it. One of the things swimming taught me was that you never quit, and you always finish the race. I’m going to do that with swimming in this city.”
The sport also must have given Bradford an amazing supply of optimism. Because despite all the evidence to the contrary, he believes he’s going to succeed.
“I know it looks bad,” he says. “But I believe swimming’s going to come back in D.C. I’ve been around long enough to see that things run in cycles. Bellbottoms came back, didn’t they?” Dave McKenna