BERLIN - The indelible image of the former East German Olympic female swimmer: big, burly and unbeatable.
, former swimming coaches confirmed that the freakishly masculine women had taken steroids under the Stasi-run sports program. But for two decades starting in the late 1960s, these
-boosted women dominated competitive swimming despite wide suspicion of their methods.
My first visit to the former East Berlin came just ahead of the London Olympics, and I wanted to brush up against the notorious Iron Curtain Olympic legacy. With almost three dozen pools spread throughout the city, a swimmer never needs to go far. I chose to swim my laps at pools within easy biking distance from my host's Prenzlauer Berg apartment, plus the 1936 Olympic stadium pool in a different part of the city.
Berlin pools are gloriously long and crystal clear. Water temperatures don't stray far from a sublime 82 degrees. The city is a lap-swimming dream.
For a swimmer, water is home. My freestyle feels the same now as it did when I was 10 and it's the same stroke in Berlin as St. Paul. Under my cap, goggles and
, I felt like a graceful dolphin, not a bumbler whose rudimentary Germany could barely get me a subway ticket.
I didn't plan it, but the sequence of my pool visits was serendipitous; each was better than the one before.
First stop: Schwimmhalle Ernst Thaelmann, named for a
leader who died in 1944. The pool is in a park designed in 1986, beside a coal plant that closed in 1981.
I paid my 4 euro entry fee, then almost left crestfallen and confused before I could even get to the pool deck. I couldn't figure out which unmarked door led to the locker room.
I warily opened a door and found a dressing cabin with a door leading out the other side. I tugged on my suit and padded barefoot onto the deck, where a lifeguard immediately gave me a lengthy directive.
I understood one word: "Duschen." I needed to shower before entering the pool. After a proper drenching, I slid into one of two crowded lap lanes in the steel-basin 25-meter pool. I counted nearly 20 people in my lane swimming circles, standard lap protocol, but their speed varied widely. Uh-oh.
I wanted to try to knock off 500 meters, a third my usual minimum. Turned out German lap swimmers are adept at passing without assaulting others. Although it was much more crowded than most pools back home, I was buoyed by the camaraderie and enjoyed the energy of the roller-derby rough and tumble. I logged my mile.
A surprise: The locker room is coed, although most but not all bathers tuck into cabins to get dressed. I went totally native.
My next stop: the gorgeous Bauhaus-style 50-meter Stadtbad Mitte that opened in 1930. Bombed repeatedly in 1945, the pool building has since been restored and declared a historic monument. When it opened, it was Europe's largest pool, known for its dazzling square glass windows on the walls and ceiling. Ah, heaven - natural light. When you're face down in a pool for an hour, you want the sun shooting through the water, shifting angles and intensity, dancing into different shapes and turning bubbles into diamonds.
Except for a guy with a red Speedo pulled up to his armpits, I had my own lane.
A 30-minute subway ride brought me to my much-anticipated Olympic pool visit. The 50-meter pool sits next to the track stadium. Both were built at the direction of Adolf Hitler for the 1936 Olympics that he intended as a show of Teutonic superiority. A leafy trail provided peaceful passage for the quarter-mile walk from the subway to the track and pool stadiums.
Even pushing 80, the pool is extraordinary. Water washes over decks flush to the pool, keeping the surface calm. During an effortless 2-mile swim with only one or two others in the pool, I imagined the stadium's concrete seats full of loudly cheering spectators.
Final stop: a 10-lane, 50-meter beauty at the underground Europa Sportpark built in 1999. A wall of windows couldn't overcome the subterranean locale, but pool size more than compensated. After my swim, I discovered the adjacent pool that played host to German Olympic qualifying meets.
The most significant amenity at the complex, however, was the biggest diving well I've seen. More than a dozen springboards and concrete platforms lined two sides of the square, from 1 to 10 meters high. Tiny divers bounced off the boards. Their older teammates twisted and tumbled from platforms. I sat alone in the stands for an hour, mesmerized by the potential future Olympians in flight.
From what I could surmise, the East Berlin Olympians trained at their own complex so I didn't get wet with the ghosts. Instead, I biked to the pools, stopped for coffee on the way home and chatted as best as I could with (friendly!) Berliners. I was occasionally asked auf deutsch for directions. I don't know how to cuss out someone in German so I was forced to be friendly. While I had sought to peer into the past, I landed in the present to experience the joy of shared passion.
IF YOU GO:
For information on pools throughout Berlin, go to http://www.berlinerbaeder betriebe.de, which is in German.