Swimmers in the Middle Lane
By Adam Poor
There’s something about the Metropolitan Pool that attracts physical talent. Maybe it’s the stunning pool with its skylit gabled ceiling. Or maybe it’s the neighborhood’s creative energy that generates good swimmers.
Penelope Coe, a longtime resident of South Williamsburg and avid Met Pool swimmer, says, “I think it’s unusual for a pool to have that many good swimmers. I don’t know why it is, but [Met swimmers] really are very good.”
Whatever the reason, Doug Safranek is probably part of it. Safranek, a painter who has lived in Williamsburg for over 25 years, is one of the original members and the de facto leader of a group of swimmers that calls itself the Met Swim Team.
If you’ve ever gone for a swim at Met Pool on a weekday morning around 8:30 or so and found yourself getting pointers on butterfly technique from a handful of artists and writers, an indie-rock front man, a freelance Highland bagpiper, a couple of restaurateurs, or maybe a world-class opera singer, you’ve probably met Safranek and his teammates. An eclectic bunch, to be sure, but they also happen to be among the best amateur swimmers in the city.
Existing in one form or another since the mid ‘80s, the Met Swim Team, has developed into an unofficial master class for committed swimmers of all stripes, whether they’re former competitive swimmers or just dedicated newbies.
About 30 people in all turn out regularly for weekday swims, with a dozen or so showing up on any given day. Each morning’s swim is developed by a different member, and they coach each other in technique.
“It’s just so much easier to push yourself when you’re swimming with a group,” says Matt Kebbekus, a recent New York transplant who started working out with the Met swimmers just over a year ago.
That enthusiasm is a vast change from the early days, says Safranek. When he started coming to Met Pool in 1986 as a young mfa grad new to the city, few people used it. Back then, he says, Williamsburg was a rough place to live. “All of Bedford was either boarded up or dark. South Williamsburg was a crack neighborhood. No one came out here.”
But when the pool reopened after renovations in the 1990s, Safranek and a small core of dedicated swimmers decided to build up the quality of the swimming there, inviting others to join their group, coaching beginners, and educating pool users on proper swimming etiquette.
Before long the Met Swim Team had become a true neighborhood fixture. Oslo Coffee, the group’s traditional post-swim hangout, recently had branded swim caps made just for them. To keep things fresh, the team bikes en masse across the Manhattan Bridge in summer to swim at the outdoor pool at Hamilton Fish Park where they compete—and often win—in the Parks Department’s annual city-wide swimming competition. They take group trips out to Rockaway Beach to swim along the coast, and several members take part in long-distance swims in the Hudson River. The most harrowing expedition is a 28.5-mile marathon swim all the way around Manhattan Island that has an entry fee of nearly $1,500. That’s a hefty expense that member Rob Herschenfeld plans to help his fellow members shoulder through sponsorships from his Brooklyn Roasting Company.
If you ask Kebbekus, this is the real appeal of Met Pool: not the swimming, but the camaraderie. “When you move to Williamsburg, it’s easy to meet other transients,” Kebbekus says. “But it’s tough to meet people who are settled, who are part of the neighborhood. Swimming with these guys is a way to instill community.”<
“The people at Met Pool are part of my family,” says Coe. “It’s my social network.”
Safranek agrees. “You meet someone in the pool and start swimming with them, and then you discover they have these interesting lives,” he says. “Nearly all of my friends I’ve met in the middle lane at Met Pool.”