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Avoiding Waterborne Illnesses – The Challenge for Professional Water Sports Athletes

One of the most self-defeating mistakes I can think of is our lack of willingness to listen to the voices we need to hear the most.  

That’s abundantly true in the aquatic industry where facility owners and managers seemingly go deaf when it comes to the messages from their consumers about the water and air quality in and around their pools. Time and time again over the span of my long career, people who are in a position to ensure the health of their swimmers simply don’t. Whether it’s the fear of the cost of making changes or the fear of doing things differently, or just a reluctance to admit they’ve been wrong in their approach to water treatment  feedback from the swimmers themselves is almost always ignored.  

It’s as if there’s a level of illness, risk, and downtime they’re willing to accept, and while I’m not saying these people don’t care about their swimmers, the net effect is one of complete and, I believe, unforgivable indifference. People get sick in water because those in charge refuse to do anything about it, until they’re forced to by the health department or as a result of outside pressure, such as litigation.  

The irony is, if people in charge would listen to their constituents, they could avoid a spectrum of problems. It’s in their own self-interest to pay attention to what their swimmers are telling them. Yet, they don’t.  

The Voice of Youth 

I’d like to change that, at least in this space and give a platform to the voice of the swimmer; the consumer; the reason pools exist in the first place. Meet Max Bass, a collegiate water polo player, and I’m proud to say, my nephew. Max is a thoughtful and honest young man, the sort of person who makes you proud to know as a family member and a friend, and he has some potent things to say about the importance of water quality.  

A native of Southampton, New York, Max currently plays water polo far from home for Pomona Pitzer, part of the Claremont Colleges in sunny Southern California, about 60 miles east of L.A. He is in his freshman year and by all indications, having an amazing experience playing for a great coach, on a terrific team based in a gorgeous and well-maintained facility.  

He eagerly says that playing water polo has changed his life. “I originally got into it to get in shape and lose weight. And I joined water polo to be around one of my closest friends,” he says. “It is the most incredible sport you could ever play. You create the tightest bond between your teammates and coaches. In my opinion, it’s the hardest sport to play, and it’s also the most rewarding. It’s taught me that whatever difficult situation you’re in, it’s always temporary, no matter the challenge, you can get through it. And, I’ve seen how you can achieve great things through hard work and sacrifice.” 

That is an amazing testament to the value of aquatic sports, and he is absolutely right; water polo is phenomenally hard and in fact, those who play it are among the world’s best conditioned athletes, of any kind. Max reports that he spends an average of 20 hours each week in the water and that his team’s workouts are far more difficult than the games themselves. At age 19, he is demonstrating a level of commitment few people ever muster 

“You gain a sense of accomplishment and you become part of a community of people who share the sacrifice and have the same experience,” he says. In water polo, everywhere you go, you have friends and something to talk about.” 

The Problem 

Indeed, when it comes to the “why” behind a tough sport like water polo, Max’s words say it all. But there’s another side to his message, one that makes me bristle with frustration and even anger.  

His high school water polo experience took place mostly in indoor pools in the northeast. Not surprisingly, as is the case for a vast majority of high-use natatoriums, Max’s home pool was a wretched soup of bad water and bad air. Despite complaints from parents, and especially the kids, those in charge of the water did nothing to correct the problem. And, make no mistake, there were negative consequences. 

“Everyone on the team would be sick the entire season,” Max says. “You felt it in your eyes, your skin, hair and especially in your lungs. We’d be doing these really intense workouts, and sometimes it felt like it was almost impossible to breathe. You try to not complain, because no one wants to be the person who can’t handle it, but the water and air quality were horrible and it made it so much harder.” 

Consider the brutal irony of that situation. Water polo requires a level of cardiovascular and muscular stress found in few other activities and yet, these kids not only have to find the fortitude to make it through workouts that would make most other people gasp, cry, and quit, but on top of that they are forced to undergo it all while breathing toxic air and swallowing unhealthy water. That is fundamentally unacceptable!  

“The water quality makes a huge difference,” he says. “I guess we got used to the bad conditions, but when you play in a pool where the water is in good condition, like the pool I work out in now, which is the best I’ve experienced outside of my uncle Steve’s pool, you realize how different it is. It’s like a different worldyou perform better and don’t experience all the problems that go along with working out in bad water conditions. You know it right away. 

When water conditions are dialed in, Max says you’re freer to concentrate on getting through the workout or winning the match. It’s the absence of problems that defines excellence and there is also the perceivable difference. “It’s hard to describe,” he says. “The water definitely feels different in a well-maintained pool. You’re faster in the water and it feels so much better on your body. It’s like night and day.” 

For those in a position with the ability to affect positive change, listening to the voices that matter most is not too much to ask. 

the Water Geek


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A blog about all things water, written by SRK's founder Steve Kenny.