The Plunge

Old swimmers never die, they just wash ashore every summer at the La Jolla Rough Water Swim or chalk up interminable laps at the Mission Beach Plunge. Such might be the judgment of the casual observer who wanders into the cavernous building that houses the largest indoor swimming pool in Southern California.

There the spectator would behold dozens of tank suit-clad bodies swimming at an almost hypnotic pace back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in time to some private metronome.

Like other athletes, swimmer lean on their training to clear out the cobwebs in their brains, the kinks in their muscles, and the soft spots in their emotions. But the difference between the typical field athlete and the swimmer, all else being equal, is that the swimmer continues training long past his or her prime, the habit-forming routine of endless laps being hard to shake. And if he is a workout addict, he is usually hooked on the Mission Beach Plunge.

Built in 1925, the plunge is ensconced rather majestically in the northwest corner of Belmont Park and bears the San Diego Historic Site Board plaque proclaiming it landmark number 89. There are 115 such markings in the city on buildings whose structures are judged “architecturally and/or historically significant.”

Structurally, the plunge is unusual but not unique. It is of the same vintage and style as the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, “pseudo-Spanish Renaissance Revival.” In fact, the exterior of the plunge prompts one to think of it as a misplaced appendage to the park.

Splendid as the building must once have been, it is starting to show signs of age. Bulging cracks are causing chunks of plaster to fall from the grand molding that decorates the three original entrances to the pool (only one is now in use) and the letters “MB” draped elegantly across the ornate frontispiece are starting to fade.

The plunge’s lavish exterior may be crumbling, but inside is a pool as lithe and graceful as it always was and as most of its ardent devotees hope it always will be. Lined off to accommodate eight racing lanes, the huge pool used to be the scene of historic swimming meets and beautiful aquatic pageants. It was here in the late 50s that Joe Alkire, a local boy, broke the world record for the 50-yard freestyle on a straightaway course. His time: 22.5 seconds. The only remnants of the pageants, bulky early-style paddle boards, now line the upper deck on permanent display. The last swim meet was held in 1969.

“It’s amazing how much history is in this building,” says pool manager Don Mackey. “I get old-timers who come in the mornings and tell me how they learned to swim here when they were in the Navy.” He estimates that over a million people must have learned to swim in the plunge since the early ‘20s. He laughs and then adds, “I learned to swim here when I was 11.”

As Tom Warren, the owner of Tug’s in Mission Beach, said, “Everybody who lives around here who’s a native probably learned to swim at the plunge.” Warren, who has been featured in Sports Illustrated for his athletic achievements, is earnest in his praise for the plunge, “I won the national championships a couple of times,” he says, “but without the plunge, I couldn’t have done it.”

Carrie Recksiech learned to swim there when she was nine. She, along with about a dozen other part-time staff, all students, helps to operate the plunge. “I remember hiding behind the island in the shallow and to ditch swim team workout. Sometimes, we’d play house in the locker rooms. I remember the cockroaches too,” she says, “but they’re all gone now.”

The plunge’s clientele is not restricted to serious athletes, former Navy men, and ex-swim team members. According to the Park and Recreation’s Aquatics Division, the plunge is one of the busiest pools in the city, despite its four-month closing each year (from September until January). Almost 25,000 admissions were recorded last season, and the anticipated income this year ($20,000) will make it the city’s most lucrative pool.

Who are all these swimmers? Mornings find five or six instructors teaching 50 or more handicapped individuals to kick, breathe, float or swim. Those too disabled to stand or wade in the main pool’s shallow end use the adjacent two-foot-deep children’s pool. Built with thousands of hand-laid thumb-sized tiles, and later decorated with sharks, sea horses, and Snoopy wall murals (done by the instructors), the wading pool is considered by many to be a priceless antique.

During the day, city lifeguards use the pool to keep in shape and complete their winter testing. Evenings at the plunge find the swimming team (San Diego Swim Association), almost 70 strong, being put through their paces while others in the pool plod along, fighting waves generated by tomorrow’s Olympians.

In addition, the plunge’s frequent visitors include those enrolled in beginner, advanced, lifesaving, physical fitness, and survival classes. Part of the reason they keep coming is the price of the plunge today, as it was in 1948 – 35 cents for children under 15, 65 cents for adults.

More than just the price of admission is the same today as it was in 1948. The brass sprinkler heads that serve as the plunge’s fire protection have 1925 datings: the brass rails leading in and out of the pool are originals, as are all of the brass fixtures in the locker rooms. The boiler room, which efficiently heats the entire pool and its environs, is still functioning with many of its original parts (it used to heat the Old Mission Beach Ballroom as well.) Even the color scheme, yellow and white with blue trim, is close to the original. Only the shades have been updated.

Gone from the pool are the three-meter high diving board and a smaller one-meter board. Some say they were removed because of space considerations (the serious lap swimmers had to stay clear of falling bodies). Others contend the authorities decided that the pool’s depth (nine feet) was unsafe for high diving practice.

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