Recently A close friend of mine mentioned that the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) was putting together a women's swim team and suggested that I try out. Recalling the club's vicious court battles in the late 1980s over admitting females, I was hesitant. However, in desperate need of an activity more stimulating than climbing the StairMaster, I finally dived at the opportunity. I had spent 16 years of my life, from second grade throughout college, immersed in pool water, swimming freestyle and butterfly sprints. But none of that had prepared me for the demands of the NYAC's team selection process.
On the telephone, club member and vice chairman of the swimming program Richard Ellis, an accomplished masters swimmer and handball player, introduced himself politely, gave me a brief rundown on the team and then began to grill me. In addition to my best times he demanded a laundry list of information that included my age (24), my current state of fitness, my college and high school swimming records, my past world and national rankings, recent meet results and personal references. He is also the head coach for the team, and he informed me that the club prides itself on its annual performance at the Metropolitan Championships, which are held in late February. "We have won the meet for a few years running, you know," he said. He explained that the club funds its athletes' meet entry fees, association membership fees and meet-related travel expenses. Then he insisted that I commit immediately to participating in the Met championship meet, which was still six months away, or forsake the chance to try out for the team. I had no choice but to agree.
As Ellis was catching his breath, I asked him about the other women on the team. "Oh, there's only one female on the squad right now," he replied. "She swims occasionally. We've been trying to get a relay together for a few years now. With you on the team, we might have half of one." I imagined burly men disguised in women's swimsuits to complete the relay. Before hanging up, Ellis asked me to submit a swimming r�sum� and a letter formally expressing my interest in the NYAC program. Applying to college had been easier.
When I was growing up, I knew the NYAC not as the birthplace of amateur athletics in the U.S. but as a social club at which middle-aged men swam naked in the pool, ate sumptuous meals and then withdrew to steam rooms to combat caloric excess. In fact, since its founding in 1868, the NYAC has played a significant role in organized U.S. amateur sports. In addition to sponsoring hundreds of talented athletes over the years, the 8,200-member club has contributed money and manpower to the growth of amateur track and field, swimming, boxing, wrestling, fencing and water polo, as well as to the development of the international Olympic movement. At the 1904 Games in St. Louis, NYAC members won 29 gold medals. Since the first modern Olympics in 1896, club-sponsored athletes have won 117 golds, more than Australia, Canada, Japan and many other nations.
Since 1956, however, the club has not won a gold medal in any Olympic running event, and its most recent track and field stars—discus thrower Al Oerter, miler Eamonn Coghlan and long jumper Joe Greene—have either retired from competition or relinquished club sponsorship in favor of shoe-company contracts. As club athletic director Ray Lumpp laments, "We just don't have the finances to back the Carl Lewises." So, the NYAC pours its more modest resources into fencing, judo and rowing development programs. In Atlanta it was not highly touted runners who won medals for display at the club but Bruce Baumgartner, a heavyweight wrestler who won a bronze; Lance Deal, who won silver in the hammer throw; and James Pedro, who took a bronze in lightweight judo.
The club has also been forced to become more inclusive in its membership policies. In 1988 a Supreme Court decision required the NYAC and other historically fraternal organizations in the New York metropolitan area to accept women as members. Since then the club has opened its gymnasium to females, and it is trying to establish women's teams in rowing and fencing as well as swimming. "We understand that times have changed and that we must evolve as a result," says Lumpp, a member of the gold-medal-winning 1948 U.S. Olympic basketball team who also played for the New York Knicks from 1949 to '52.
When women were granted access to the club's facilities, including the pool, the NYAC faced a dilemma. Traditionally members had swum nude in the club pool. Even the water polo team had trained without bathing suits. Insert a woman into the water, and the boys could not be boys. As Fred Jarvis, the club historian and archivist, wrote in the NYAC annals, "A certain carefree, chlorinated joy would be gone forever, replaced by Speedos and circumspection." The so-called "to suit or not to suit" dispute raged for months. Not until September 1991 did members grudgingly agree to abandon the Greek ideal and slip into the bathing suits supplied in a pool bin. But even today, I bet, purists engage in daring dips when women are nowhere in sight.
Upon receiving my letter and r�sum�, Ellis called me to schedule a tryout in the club pool. Before hanging up, he gruffly instructed me to wear a blazer and a skirt—the club has a dress code—but said nothing about bringing a swimsuit.
My guide for the tryout, Lara Korhammer, the lone NYAC female swimming team member, led me to the women's locker room, oddly juxtaposed with the club's boxing room. I asked Korhammer, a former Australian Olympic swimmer, how she felt about being the only woman on the team. "It doesn't bother me," she said. "I grew up with three brothers. Frankly, the guys make the training more fun, particularly when you beat them." Plus, she thought training with men helped her when it came to swimming her races against women. As we changed, I admired the spotless floors and the lack of mildew in the two-year-old locker room. Since every locker is now reserved by female members, I expect the cleanliness to be short-lived. Wearing our own racing suits and club-issue seersucker robes, Lara and I made our way to the third-floor pool, affectionately (and appropriately, as I was to discover) referred to as the Turkish Baths.
Nothing in my swimming experience, which includes two Olympic trials, had prepared me for the vaulted, modern-day Roman retreat. The deep, tiled pool emerged through clouds of chlorine-tinged steam. Along its perimeter were lounge chairs supporting immobile bodies covered in white bath sheets. Here and there a face appeared, eyes shut, mouth pursed in the final stage of a snore. I perched myself at the end of one of the chairs; its snoozing occupant did not budge. In the ancient five-lane pool, men were swimming back and forth with slow, confident strokes. Now and then figures appeared mysteriously from the mist escaping the steam rooms at the far end of the pool. Their faces were flushed and sweaty, and several sported blotches of shaving cream from an afternoon grooming. Attendants scurried about, bringing cold water and beers to the dehydrating members.