A Week In the Life: The Pool Deck

Three thousand people come through the doors of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan every day. Many attend programs with others close in age or with similar interests. Toddlers and parents or caregivers make a beeline for our early-childhood classrooms. Established and aspiring artists head to our creative spaces on L3. Adults seeking to clear their heads through meditation end up in Makom. Those looking for a workout can be found in the fitness center.

But it’s in the JCC’s pools on the 6th floor where you’ll find the greatest variety of people, where all populations come together to learn to swim, take therapeutic classes, practice their strokes, or do leisurely laps. If there’s any area of the JCC that provides a full picture of our community, few would disagree….it’s the 6th floor.

What’s happening in our pools at any given time on any given day? Spend a week with us and find out…

NOON The first time 4½-year-old Marco showed up for his Jellyfish class in the main pool, he was so stressed by the pool sounds that he asked his mother to go in with him. Instead, he opted for sitting on the edge of the pool. The second time was no more successful, but the third was the charm—his mother, Annalisa Guzzini, stood on the pool deck and handed him to his instructor, who was waiting patiently in the water. Slowly but surely, Marco has conquered his fear and gained trust in his instructors, and is now well on his way to learning to swim. 6 PM In the Prenatal and Postnatal Water Exercise class that she leads, Robin Mandel does more than make her students physically and mentally happy. Many are here to relax and relieve the discomforts of pregnancy; others attend after they’ve had their babies as well, partly for the exercise but also for the community of new moms they’ve found.

7:30 AM Tall and lean, 34-year-old Bec Bogue swims laps with a grace in stark contrast to her physical awkwardness outside the pool. At 17, she was training to be a professional dancer when, during a ballet class, she experienced a rupture from an arteriovenous malformation, in which blood vessels form incorrectly. A coma and multiple surgeries followed, and Bogue had to relearn how to walk and talk. Afterward, she studied dance again in college, but a fall in 2009 resulted in the loss of all she had regained. For Bogue, who walks with a cane, the pool offers a freedom she doesn’t have on land. “I like not having to deal with gravity. I feel so safe in the water.”

2 PM At 86, Shimshon Kinory may move more slowly than some, but the aquatics staff is always impressed with his dedication and perseverance as he swims laps in the main pool, according to Elana Pici, manager of private swim and aquatics deck supervisor. Sometimes his son, Adam, joins him. Kinory, who continues to work as a professor in the School of Business at New Jersey City University and has swum pretty much every day for the past 60 years, jokes that he’d rather be at the JCC than across the street—at the funeral home.

10:30 AM Leslie Verter, 75, swims laps most weekdays, but Wednesday mornings, you’ll find her taking lessons with one of two instructors to perfect her stroke and style. With Bonnie Schwartz, she works on alternate side breathing, which she “never thought I would be able to do.” With Caitlin Boker, who is also assistant director of infants and young children aquatics, special needs aquatic coordinator, and a practitioner of Hallwick Hydrotherapy, she works on speed, technique, and endurance.

5 PM For Kathy Morgenstern, who took over coaching responsibilities for the JCC’s Thunderbird Swim Team this year, even more important than fast times or participating in high-profile meets are the relationships that are built. Isabella Riva has been swimming with the JCC since the age of 4, and was invited to join the swim team at age 7. She is now a valued Thunderbird and holds five team records. She’s made friends of different genders, backgrounds, and ages, says her mom, Patty Riva, and “she loves it and keeps doing better. Sometimes it’s difficult to maintain a community that’s changing so much, but with the Thunderbirds, we are all a team.”

8 PM Roderick Sewell, 26, is more than a teacher to the swimmers in the Tri Swim program— he’s a fellow competitor and an inspiration. Born without tibias in both of his legs, he became a bilateral amputee at the age of 1½, but hasn’t let that stop him from swimming competitively—or training others to do the same. His class is made up of swimmers training for the Olympic-length triathlon and those who participate in paralympic-length triathlons as part of the Achilles International team. Sewell, who has swum for half of his life, has participated in the 2014 Pan Pacific Games, the 2016 Pan American Games, and the 2017 World Championships, and is currently in training for the Paralympic Games in 2020.

12:30 PM Jennilynn Patterson has created what can only be described as an Arthritis Water Exercise “cult” of people who will take only HER classes. Men and women clamor to get a spot in one of her three classes every Wednesday. Longtime participant Esther Modell calls her “a gem. The things she gets us to do in the water are things none of us would have imagined we were capable of.”

4 PM After her Stingrays swim class wraps up, Myella Davis, 7, joins Carolina Stapleton, Director of Infants & Young Children Aquatics and Settoga Aquatics Director, on the pool deck to watch her 5-year-old brother, Macin, in his Dolphins 3 class. It’s a special treat for Myella to sit on the pool deck with Stapleton. The two have known each other for several years, here at the JCC and at Settoga, where Stapleton has worked for the past three summers.

4:30 PM Emma and Maddie are sisters who have participated in parent-child and private swim lessons with Caitlin Boker since the age of six months. Four-year-old Maddie proudly announced to the entire pool and locker room that she and Cait were “the BESTEST friends in the whole world.”

7:30 AM Helene Goodgold, 72, joined the JCC before the building opened in 2002, and holds the distinction of being the first woman to swim in the JCC’s pool on its very first day in operation. Since then, she’s swum three to four mornings a week for about 45 minutes at a stretch. She’s one of about a half-dozen women who are longstanding morning swimmers. Before she retired, she would be at the pool around 5:30 am. “It was very intense,” she recalls. “Everyone was in a hurry. The vibe was very different.” As the years went by and her hours changed, Goodgold made friends with other swimmers, some of whom she attends JCC classes with outside the pool. A benefit to being an early-morning swimmer? “Watching the sun rise though the pool deck’s windows,” says Goodgold.

10 AM As a full-time lifeguard on the morning shift, Ivette Batista sees swimmers at their best—and not so best. “Swimming is about respecting people’s space,” says Batista, who is also a certified pool operator and swim instructor. Some swimmers, she says, are territorial, but when tempers flare, her M.O. is to “kill them with kindness.” When faster swimmers are upset because slower ones are in their lanes, or because they were accidentally kicked or touched by another swimmer, says Batista, “I hear them out and try to help them.”

10:30 AM Upwards of 20 women attend Jennilynn Patterson’s women’s only swim class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Members of the group wear swim caps honoring Orit Spanier, their instructor who died early this year, and have been taking classes together for many years. When they wear the caps, says Aquatics Facilities Director Fran Motola, “it makes us feel like Orit’s spirit is still with us.”

1 PM Several years ago, the aquatics staff suggested to Miriam Harris-Kaplan, who needs a scooter to get around, that she use a pull buoy when she swims to help keep her legs from sinking. Harris-Kaplan heard “pool boy.” They all had a good laugh, says Motola, and Harris-Kaplan named the pull buoy Brad. When she swims, she tells the pool staff she is coming to swim with Brad.

4:30 PM Six-year-old Eli is a regular at the JCC pool, taking private swim lessons twice a week and an adaptive aquatics class as well. When he began working with Cait Boker once a week, in the spring of 2018, says his mother, Sara, “he was terrified of losing control” when it came to learning a new skill. By the summer, the pair were working together twice weekly and eventually increased to three times. Today, Eli swims the length of the main pool on his own. “We feel so fortunate that we found Caitlin,” his mother says. “Her skills in early childhood and aquatics are a magic combination.”

8 AM According to Christian Lajara, a swim instructor and coach who leads a variety of classes for the JCC’s youngest swimmers and their grown-ups in the training pool, being a successful swim instructor “comes down to building a rapport with parents and swimmers.” Lajara has spent half his life building that rapport at the JCC. Now 30, he was hired as a lifeguard when he was only 15 years old. “I loved it from the very beginning. I enjoyed being able to communicate with the kids and getting them to overcome their fears,” he says. Lajara is now seeing swimmers he worked with as babies filling out the ranks of the swim team. “We still have a relationship because I was their first coach,” he says.

NOON Gladys Nussenbaum has been participating in the Arthritis Water Exercise class for years. With her stylish swimsuits, pink Esther Williams-style swim cap, and giant sunglasses, she exudes a true celebrity air. Returning to the pool after having been unable to swim for a while, Gladys is greeted by her classmates with a song of welcome.

10 AM As part of the JCC’s Saturday Morning Community Partners program, 20 to 40 children between 6 and 17 from the Bronx and Harlem, participants in programs for underserved populations, swim in our pool on Saturday morning. Many are new to swimming and working on learning the basics of water safety so they can enjoy and be safe around water. This year, thanks to Elana Pici's efforts, 20 Girl Scouts from a troop made up of girls living in New York City homeless shelters are spending their Saturday mornings learning to swim at the JCC.

1:30 PM For Carolina Ledezma and her son, Alejandro (Ale), who has multiple severe disabilities, including cerebral palsy and a neurological disorder known as Sturge-Weber syndrome, meeting Pici, who is also a Halliwick Hydrotherapy practitioner, last summer was “love at first sight.”

Ale, then 5, was scheduled for major surgery, and his mother wanted to do everything she could to build up his strength. Following the surgery, he experienced pain and stress, but in the water, “he was a different kid. He was totally relaxed,” she says. Everyone was shocked when he was able to give up his medication for asthma and respiratory issues.

Ale continues to grow stronger, and though he is unable to control his muscles, can now float on his back with Pici’s help. In December, the pair moved from the training pool to the main pool, where Ale is thriving.

Ledezma credits the pair's instant connection to Pici’s gentle touch and tone of voice, not to mention her experience with kids with cerebral palsy. “For us, every little step is huge. For Ale, it’s not just swimming—it’s surviving.”

To read more about the aquatics staff, click the link below.

To watch the story of aquatics instructor Christian Lajara, click below.

To watch the story of aquatics instructor Orit Spanier Z"l, click below.