Backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, crawl. Cathy Raggio's 30-minute, early-morning pool routine burns calories galore and provides a galvanizing workout for the arms, legs, heart and lungs. In terms of distance swum, though, hers is a static routine: zero laps, zero miles.
Raggio's pool is one of those compact jobs you may have seen in magazine ads. Manufactured by Endless Pools of Aston, PA, it functions as a sort of treadmill for swimmers. The pool—14 feet long, 8 feet wide and 3 feet deep—contains a motor-driven propeller (tucked safely behind a grill) that churns out a strong current.
Learning to swim in place against the current is a snap, Raggio said. In an interview at her Ellicott City home, she recalled her test-swim at an Endless Pools showroom: "After about 12 strokes, I had the hang of it." Twelve strokes. Wow. I wondered how long it would take me to get it. Graciously, Raggio had invited me to take a dip. I went to put on trunks.
Her pool is the centerpiece of a handsome, new addition at the back of her brick rambler. Several potted plants sit on the floor under a large window, and a fish mobile hangs from the ceiling not far from a skylight.
That morning, the water looked crystal-clear. I stuck a hand in, felt its warmth and took the plunge. When Raggio pressed a button at the pool's edge, a motor hummed unobtrusively and I felt a gentle surge of water.
Raggio turned a dial beside the button, and the current started nudging me toward the rear wall. I leaned forward and began an easy crawl, taking a few strokes before I felt stable in the water. With extra effort, I could propel myself to the front and brush my fingers on the grate. By relaxing a bit I could float myself back to the middle of the pool. The 5-horsepower propulsion unit is strong enough to give a challenging endurance workout—but not a sprint workout—to a world-class swimmer, according to Tim Plummer of Endless Pools.
To rest, I had merely to step left or right. On either side of the pool, there was calm water and a bench to sit on. The current-regulating dial was within easy reach at the front. After 15 minutes, I climbed out dripping and impressed.
Raggio said she was drawn to the home-pool idea because she has a hard time dealing with obstacles found in public indoor pools. She is a woman with a disability—as a child she had polio—and her need to use crutches or a wheelchair makes it hard to move easily and safely around puddly locker rooms and pool areas.
Since her compact pool was installed, Raggio has been able to take a daily swim that makes her feel "great," she said. On weekday mornings, she's in the water by 5:30; hot summer evenings often find her taking a second dip. Her husband and two kids occasionally splash around in the pool for fun. Sounds delightful, huh? So pick up the phone and call for Endless Pools' free literature.
No, wait. First check your home to see if you have a 200-square-foot space to put a pool and other necessary gear, including power unit, propulsion assembly, hydraulic fluid reservoir and water quality system. Your garage? It'll do. Back the Taurus out and move those boxes.
Harald Leuba, a building contractor from Potomac, invited me to see his pool. He lives in a modern, one-story house; the natatorium is on the south end by the master bedroom.
In building his pool, Leuba did not exercise the bare-bones option. Nor did he opt for the $50,000-to-$70,000 option, as exemplified by the Raggio pool and the room around it. Rather, he chose the $70,000-to-$100,000 option, which bought the pool and a lovely solarium to contain it.
Leuba and his wife, Nancy, use the pool almost every day. "We're not very good about exercising," he said, "and it has made us less not-very-good." Pointing out some Nautilus machines near the pool, he said they previously gathered dust in the basement. "We used to go downstairs and work on the machines three times a week. And then we got out of the habit. And the pool has helped us get back in the habit."
Daily maintenance involves wiping water off the pool's cedar exterior—a five minute chore, Leuba said. "Once a month," he added, "I vacuum it, check the water chemistry. Once a week, I put a cup of Clorox in it, to help kill the bacteria." A device called an ionizer turns dead bacteria into particles, which get trapped in the pool's filter, "so the water's crystal-clear all the time."
Leuba took me to see the pool he installed in the Bethesda home of Ray and Ruth Tyler.
The Tyler pool sits in a high-traffic area next to the kitchen. Leuba built a fancy solarium to contain it, but that room looks less like a gym than a family room. Chairs and sofas face a large TV set a few feet from the water.
Ray Tyler, 76, was napping when we stopped by, but I called him a few days later. "He's in the pool right now," his wife said, and handed him the phone.
"First off I hate to exercise," Tyler said. "So what do I do? I got a television set. I pull that over here and I watch television. What else do I do to make it interesting? I got bridge tapes. Do you play duplicate bridge? With these tapes, I can study one, stay in here for a half-hour, an hour.
"What I do, I just get on my back and swim backwards and forwards. And this gives my hips and my knees a lot of action. And it gives your chest exercise, your arms, your hips, your back. Actually you can get a pretty good workout in this thing."
Swimming, watching TV and learning to play bridge—simultaneously, in the comfort of your own family room. Such are the high-priced pleasures of a compact pool.