Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Renew graceful dowager on Sherbrook St.

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It was a coming out of sorts for me. Ten years ago, I publicly admitted for the first time in a piece I wrote for Dropped Threads that I had multiple sclerosis. I set At the Water's Edge not along some Caribbean beach, but by the warm, balmy waters of the Sherbrook Pool.

Up until one year ago when the pool was abruptly closed, I and others saddled with MS slipped into the healing liquid for aquafit classes at least once a week. Since then, I've struggled, not all that successfully, to keep my errant, twitching muscles gliding gracefully on dry land.

Now there are those -- city bureaucrats and city councillors, I suppose -- who would say there are other pools. "What's the big deal?" Well, I've tried the new multi-purpose, mega-complexes such as the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex the city favours. They are fine, efficient, modern edifices with separate pools for wanna-be athletic lap swimmers and untidy kids' learn-to-swim programs. Just like modern multiplex cinemas, they are also noisy, crowded and chaotic. Not that well-suited to those seeking healing.

Let me wax romantic about the old-school charms of the Sherbrook Pool: the water was always warm -- several degrees warmer than the new pools. Those complexes are filled with cool water appropriate for athletes or over-exuberant youth, not the physically flawed whose muscles constrict into a frozen clump in mere moments in cold water.

Unlike the new pools, Sherbrook has one large tank with a bottom that slopes gently from shallow to deep -- just like a real beach. That means even the lankier of us could choose the ideal depth for exercise. I liked to let the warm water lap softly up to my armpits, pressing my feet, calves, legs, core with buoyant insistence that transformed me in my mind into a graceful dancer. On instructor Pam's urgings I'd head out for the other side of the pool: Stretch. Step. Kick. Stretch. Step. Kick.

My version of MS has left me with a lurching, rickety gait -- each step a precarious feat of balance. Fear of falling personified. At Sherbrook, any stumble would be a simple dip into the comforting arms of the water. Pirouette. Jeté, Plié. Pirouette. Jeté. Plié.

Others in my MS aquafit class might have had different impairments from the disease's lengthy list of symptoms. But all agreed the soothing liquid allowed stretches and strains that would have been impossible on land. It wasn't just me or others with MS. There were other specialty fitness classes: Arthritis sufferers reported the warm water relaxed joints that had been locked in a rusty clench. Fibromyalgia victims spoke about how the water stroked away pain -- at least for a while.

Yet Sherbrook was much more than a therapy pool for the infirm. Parents brought their infants for a dip. Home-schooled kids got together for social connections as well as swimming lessons. And Bob, the giant inflated dinosaur dangling from the ceiling, gave a hint at the wild play that must have gone on during the weekend's free swim time.

Local fun seekers. Diligent swimmers. Aquafit participants. All were welcome at the Sherbrook Pool. In return, we forgave the pool its aging and broken bits. So what if the locker-room was spartan? If the tiles in the showers were a bit worn. This was after all, the city's oldest public pool. She deserved our respect.

Until November 2012, it was a sanctuary for a cross-section of the city -- young and old, rich and poor, healthy and infirm, all together. It attracted the generosity of volunteers from around the city. Heck, Laura even took the time to teach me how to snorkel so I could swim with the belugas at Churchill.

It was obvious to all of us regulars the city was doing next-to-no maintenance on the pool. Each spring, as the snow melted away in the warming sun, water would leak into the pool from a hole in the roof's defences. A broken hair dryer would remain out of order until the next fiscal year. A wall of lockers marred by missing lock mechanisms looked like missing teeth in a smile.

But the abrupt shuttering of the pool took everyone by surprise. The naive among us thought the structural repairs that had to be done would be done in a year. Instead, in that one year, the city has simply demanded justification over and over again that the pool has value. You might have thought the 2009 report Winnipeg's Best Kept Secret did just that. But now Probe Research is holding "community consultations" to assess recreation services, including pools, in the Daniel McIntyre ward. The water torture continues.

Even without the benefit of more studies, we users would say the pool needs to be reopened, as soon as possible. Perhaps now that I'm older, I can identify even more with the aging but graceful dowager on Sherbrook Street.

Ingeborg Boyens is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2013 $sourceSection0

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