Phil Garry swims nearly every day in his Corrales back yard. He usually covers about a quarter of a mile, but he never travels more than a few feet.
This some sort of riddle?
Nope. Garry owns a counter-current pool.
Though it is not a spa, Garry's swimming pool resembles a large hot tub. It features at one end a propeller that forces water at a swimmer, making him work to stay in place.
Turn up the propeller, the current gets stronger and you have to work harder. In all likelihood a counter-current pool won't turn you into a Michael Phelps. But it may improve your fitness. Says Garry: "It gives me all the exercise I want."
In a way, the pool's like a watery treadmill. But you never have to touch bottom. You can swim in place, or run in place, if you wish, saving the joints and, in drought-ravaged New Mexico, using less water than a traditional pool.
The swimming area of Garry's pool measures 7 feet by 14 feet, and is 44 inches deep. It sits in a corner of his back yard instead of overwhelming his property, as some backyard pools do.
There is no diving board, no ladder, and little chlorine. Rubber ducks are optional. Three years ago, Garry and his wife, Janis Teal, were traveling on an airplane when they spotted an ad in a magazine for Endless Pools.
The couple had talked of a lap pool in their yard, but knew they didn't have the room. This sounded more promising. Garry contacted Endless Pools, which is located in Pennsylvania, and he received a demonstration video.
Impressed, a week or so later he called back and asked if he could somehow try out a pool. Endless has been in business since 1988 and is one of the major manufacturers of counter-current pools. The company says its product can be found in all 50 states and 80 foreign countries.
Endless sent Garry to Placitas, to visit with a retired couple. The retired couple served Garry and Teal tea and cookies and then invited them to get in their pool. Garry, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico's Medical School, and Teal, a UNM Med School librarian, loved it, relished the physical nature of swimming in confined place without having to go back and forth. But they wanted an outdoor pool. No problem, said Endless. Garry reached for his checkbook.
Endless told Garry that two men could assemble one of the pools in a few days. "I'm handy," says Garry, "but I didn't think I wanted to handle this."
First, though, he had to handle putting a hole in his property. Endless sells a kit of pool parts, but you have to put those parts together. And unless you want an above-ground pool, which Endless also sells, you have to dig.
Garry hired a local contractor who brought over a small earth mover. In a couple of days, the man had gone down two feet. Two men Garry hired then poured a concrete base into the cavity. A felt lining was placed over that, and finally a polyethylene layer atop that.
All of this makes the pool soft on the feet. "Not the gritty bottom like a lot of pools," said Garry.
Garry's contractor bolted together four steel panels that make up the pool's sides, and a plumber was brought in to hook up the propeller and lay the piping to a nearby pump house, which had to be erected.
Voila! Everybody into the water!
Well, mostly just Garry and Teal. When his wife swims, Garry can sit on the edge of one of those panels, in the water.
Around the pool's edge Garry placed synthetic redwood that he bought at Home Depot. It looks like a real deck but lasts longer in New Mexico's punishing sun. Total cost? Close to $26,000, says Garry, "About the price of a new car."
Not wasting water or time.
The water in an Endless Pool circulates, so there is no periodic refilling as in typical backyard pools. "I haven't changed the water in three years," says Garry. Once a week or so he adds an inch or two of water to replace loss from splashing or evaporation. A typical backyard pool uses between 10,000 and 30,000 gallons of water, and must be changed periodically. Refilling can take as long as two days. Garry's pool uses 2,500 gallons of water and can be refilled in a couple of hours.
The pool uses minimal electricity, and just a small amount of gas to heat the water. Best of all, the couple can use their outdoor pool year-round.
When it's 30 degrees in Corrales, it's very possible that Phil Garry is backstroking along in 90-degree water, but not going anywhere.
Swimmer's dream takes a good turn
Now and then I have the swimming dream. It's like the running dream, only in this nighttime reverie I'm being chased by alligators or that phosphorescent underwater space alien from "The Abyss."
It's always gratifying to wake up from the swimming dream. The other day, though, I lived it.
Invited by Phil Garry to try out his counter-current pool, I told him to crank up the propeller all the way.
"Let's see what this baby can do," I crowed, waiting casually in the hip-deep water. Suddenly I found myself imitating a far-past-his-prime freestyle sprinter: head buried, arms windmilling, feet kicking like a man who thinks there are bugs in his bed.
As hard as I tried to drive forward, I still slipped back, back toward that pursuing alligator, which in this case was the end wall of Phil Garry's pool.
After about 25 strokes, I stopped and stood up, a beaten-back salmon. Garry decelerated the pool's propeller switch.
"Had enough?" his expression seemed to ask.
My breath coming in staggers, I sputtered, "Well, at least I didn't drown."
Look, ma! No turns!
I grew up a competitive swimmer. Eventually weary of coaches telling me what to do, I quit. Stopped cold for a long time. Two years ago, when I was living and working in South Korea, I started up again. Physically sick from jogging in Seoul's foul air, I checked out a fancy health club across the street from my office.
The place had a beautiful pool - 25 meters, six lanes. Seeing no autocratic coaches around, I bought a membership.
Did I mind staring at floor tiles once again? Not at all. In fact, I found I liked it. Best of all I loved the Seoul pool because it was always empty. Koreans are not crazy about swimming, which is odd. They live on a peninsula, after all.
When I returned to Albuquerque, I joined a health club with a pool. But swimming there was like being in an O'Hare International security line.
There is an etiquette to lap swimming: Ask a swimmer if you can join him; then move to one side of the lane or the other. But proper etiquette is often dismissed when a foot cracks a skull.
So I began to dream of a countercurrent pool.
Phil Garry's pool is only big enough for one swimmer. There is no lane-sharing. Nobody bonks anyone else.
Best of all, there are no turns. I love the push-off and glide of lap swimming, but I like stroke production more. After a while, turns turn me off. In Garry's pool, with the propeller amped down a notch, I'm pretty sure I could swim, well, endlessly.