Swimming Pool News report that more than 300 public swimming pools have closed down within the last 18 months. The immediate and gut response from almost any swimmer is that this is something we should be very concerned about.
We know from our surveys that the majority of our readers visit swimming pools on a regular basis for training and leisure swimming. Most of you probably learnt to swim in a pool and we, as a magazine, encourage people to practise and train in pools as well as open water.
But let’s consider an alternative for a moment. Having had my bike stolen recently, and subsequently having to walk to the station, reminded me how much I enjoy cycling – almost as much as swimming in fact. Not that walking was that bad but it took a long time and I got blisters. Anyway, while walking (it also gives you time to think), it struck me there are parallels between the cycling and swimming.
Take for example the difference between track cycling and road cycling. Track events are held in controlled, replicable environments and involve (mainly) short, intense efforts that favour sprinters. Road cycling events in contrast are usually long, involve tactics such as drafting and surges and are subject to the vagaries of the weather. In the Olympics multiple medals are up for grabs on the track. Outside you have just two – the time trial and the road race. All of that somehow seems similar to what we see in pool and open water swimming.
In the UK velodromes are few and far between. There are many more pools than indoor cycling facilities but this hasn’t stopped cycling becoming massively popular. In contrast, we know that many historically popular outdoor swimming spots are no longer used and swimming, for most, is seen as a competitive indoor sport. The year-round ease of access to heated water is surely part of the reason for that. So perhaps if we had a similar number of pools to velodromes a lot more people would swim outside? Could we contemplate the possibility that fewer swimming pools would lead to greater popularity for open water swimming?
In reality it’s not a theory we’d like to put to the test. In south west London we know there are swimming and triathlon groups desperate for more pool time. If that’s replicated across the country it’s hard to see why there should be demands to close pools. We are so used to using swimming pools that their disappearance would most likely be detrimental to total swimming participation (even if outdoor swimming increased) and especially to youngsters learning to swim.
We would be less disappointed to see the disappearance of ‘leisure’ pools whose odd shapes, wave machines and absence of lanes make swimming all but impossible. There is something slightly bizarre about trying to replicate an outdoor setting inside and at the same time removing most of what makes it fun, interesting and challenging. If you are going to swim inside, a boring box does the job just fine.
According to Sport England numbers, swimming is still a more popular sport than cycling with 2.9 million people doing it at least once per week. The comparable figure for cycling is 2 million but cycling is growing faster. It seems to us that if you want to keep people swimming, and keep them excited about swimming, then outdoors is the place to do it but keep the pools for training and getting people started.