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by Dr Jane Katz

November 1, 2010

Was it pre-ordained that I would be a swimmer? I did not know my life would center on a swimming pool, but the training I received shaped my interests, lifestyle, livelihood, and visions of possibilities from childhood to adulthood.

In the 1950s, swimming for most people was something to do in the summer when the municipal outdoor pools were open. In those days household air-conditioning wasn't common and swimming was the best way to cool off on a hot day. And for those who could, swimming was a day at the beach, replete with radios, umbrellas, hot dogs and lots of sand.

Swimming was also an elitist sport. Swimming meant the Olympics. For the committed, swimming meant a round-the-year involvement. It also meant poorly heated, inadequately equipped, “refreshingly” cold indoor public swimming pools; adjuncts to the old-fashioned bath houses which had served tenement dwellers. Hardly recreation centers, they were neither conducive to training properly for competition or personal relaxation.

Competitive programs and training were the initiative of neighborhood enthusiasts. The dedicated swimmers showed extraordinary commitment and discipline. They traveled, usually by public transportation, from pool to pool for workouts and competitions, supported by their parents' personal funds. My own “Summer Country Club” on the Lower East Side of New York was a public works project pool that served an entire urban community. Hamilton Fish Park Pool, a.k.a. Pitt Street pool, with its dimensions of 33-1/3 yards x 50 meters.

From Retro to Sutro

The swimming world I was born into was shaped by half a century of aquatic progress. Just before the turn of the 20th Century, in San Francisco, Calif., the Sutro Baths were geared to serve a mass audience. Sutro Baths consisted of seven swimming pools of varying size and temperature, and encouraged recreational as well as competitive aquatics. Adolph Sutro, an innovative engineer and visionary entrepreneur who made his fortune in the silver and gold mines of Nevada, was the designer of this spectacular facility. He was a proponent of physical fitness for the public and always “held swimming to be the very best exercise.” The Sutro Baths were sometimes called the “Coney Island of the West” and were considered a pleasure palace for the entire family – a forerunner of today's recreational water parks.

 At about the same time the Sutro Baths opened, the first Olympic games of modern times were held in Athens, Greece in 1896. The swimming competitions took place in open water.

The post World War I years produced such names as Olympian swimming great, Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to play Tarzan in the movies; and Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. Esther Williams brought the beauty of water ballet to the public with the help of Busby Berkley.

The Age Group Program

After World War II, the Amateur Athletic Union developed an age group swimming program with competitors ranging from ages 8 to 18 years. They had intense training programs and made unprecedented strides in swim times, and extended the boundaries of swim records.

I was among these swimmers. We competed locally, nationally and internationally, but when we turned 18, we found there was no place to continue with our competitive swimming. While there was continuity for boys swimming through high school and college, there were virtually no programs for young women. That wouldn’t happen until 1972 when Title IX was enacted. Supported by the Women's Sports Foundation, Title IX opened the door for school-age girls to have access to competitive sports, including swimming.

International Swimming Hall Of Fame

In 1965 the International Swimming Hall of Fame was established to recognize Olympic champions, coaches, contributors and pioneers. ISHOF, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, encompasses all aquatic activities. After returning from a worldwide tour with the 1964 AAU Performance Synchronized Swimming Team, I was given the honor of performing a synchronized swimming solo during the inaugural ceremonies.


U.S. Masters Swimming was the brainchild of Dr. Ransom Arthur of the Naval Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in San Diego, who was inspired by the AAU's Masters Track and Field program. Dr. Arthur joined with John Spannuth, then president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, and the first Masters swimming competition was held in 1971.

Those early meets were exciting. I remember pulling together a women's relay to participate in a Connecticut Masters meet in 1973. I was so excited that on my leg of the relay, I jumped the start and the whole team was disqualified. In 1973 I also competed in my first Masters Nationals at the ISHOF pool with a 22:44 for the 1650 freestyle. In 1993, 22 years later, I went a full minute faster in the 50-54 age group, for the same event, in the same pool.

In recent years there has been a lot of progress in organization, pool availability, competition and equipment. Masters swimming boomed in the 1980s when fitness for adults became trendy. Masters swimming continues to grow nationally and internationally.

Federation Internationale Natacion Amateur

In 1985, FINA sponsored the first Worlds Masters Aquatic Championships. Its roster of cities has included Toronto, Japan, Australia, Brazil, U.S.A., Montreal, England and Morocco. The competitions keep growing in number of participants and countries.           

The Masters program fits the needs of the baby-boom generation. Many of these fitness and Masters swimmers have the discretionary income to support their fitness fix as well as an excellent aquatic industry for their workouts, training, equipment, and travel.

Aquatics Today and Tomorrow

 In the 80s and 90s a new kid on the block emerged: water exercise. Water fitness has expanded applications of the use of water, and has become an industry with many sub-specialties. This attracts a broad-based membership of people who include water exercise as part of their fitness program. It encourages the non-swimmer or novice to experience the water in a non-threatening manner, and allows the experienced swimmer to pick up where he/she left off. Multi-service health clubs, spas, and workout centers have proliferated, offering programs for physical recreation, stress-relief, and personal renewal. The centerpiece for such retreats and restoration is often the swimming pool, and the healing benefits of warm water.

Through the decades, the number of swimmers and aquatic participants has increased. In addition, water exercise classes, aquatic therapy, innovative cross-training activities and aquatic gear proliferate to serve the needs of the mature aquatic participant. The future of aquatics is to encourage Americans to use water to improve their health and quality of life.

In April 2010, Dr. Jane Katz, professor of Health and Physical Education, received the Distinguished Faculty Award from John Jay College for her 50 years of learning and teaching aquatics at CUNY.