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Vancouver swimmers upset as lifeguard shortage shuts Hillcrest pool's 50-metre swim lanes

Hillcrest Aquatic Centre is temporarily suspending 50-metre lane swims due to a shortage of lifeguards, according to the Vancouver Park Board. (Vancouver Park Board - image credit)
Hillcrest Aquatic Centre is temporarily suspending 50-metre lane swims due to a shortage of lifeguards, according to the Vancouver Park Board. (Vancouver Park Board - image credit)

Changes to Hillcrest Aquatic Centre's pool schedule have some Vancouver swimmers feeling green around the gills.

Last week, the Vancouver Park Board "temporarily suspended" the facility's three weekly 50-metre lane swims, replacing them with additional 25-metre swims and closing part of the pool at those times — citing an ongoing shortage of lifeguards in the city.

"This is a dramatic change ... a 50-metre space is critical," said pool regular Jim Boothroyd, who has been swimming the long-course swim at Hillcrest at least once a week since the facility opened in 2008. "Swimming is a critical part of my emotional and physical well-being."

Swimming 50-metre laps has played an important role in Boothroyd's recovery from a hip replacement two years ago and in his training for a recent 12-kilometre swim across Skaha Lake in B.C.'s Okanagan region with other friends he made at the pool.

"I had to change the activities I do," he said. "Swimming, it saved me."

He said 50-metre swims were cut from four times a week to three early this year, and intermittent pool closures have impacted all pool users in recent months.

No expected end date for swim closures

The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation apologized for the inconvenience its lane closures have caused, with a spokesperson writing the board "appreciates the public's patience as we work towards resolving the issue," in an emailed statement to CBC News on Friday.

The Park Board did not provide an expected end date for the changes when asked by CBC News.

"When making decisions affecting services at our facilities, we prioritize the safety and equity of all patrons and staff," the spokesperson wrote.

But regular long-course swimmers say they weren't consulted before all 50-metre lane swims were cancelled, and say the decision is going to deter people from using the pool near Ontario Street and 30th Avenue.

"Since they closed down the 50-metre [lane], I've been twice and my friends have disappeared," Boothroyd said.

Jim Boothroyd, second from right, and fellow Hillcrest Aquatic Centre swimmers Séamus Parker (L), Lis Jang, and John Downing, after polar bear swim at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver in January 2023. Boothroyd says the 50-metre swimmers are a close group and the lane closures are deterring people from continuing to swim.
Jim Boothroyd, second from right, and fellow Hillcrest Aquatic Centre swimmers Séamus Parker (L), Lis Jang, and John Downing, after polar bear swim at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver in January 2023. Boothroyd says the 50-metre swimmers are a close group and the lane closures are deterring people from continuing to swim.

Jim Boothroyd, second from right, and fellow Hillcrest Aquatic Centre swimmers Séamus Parker (L), Lis Jang, and John Downing, after polar bear swim at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver in January 2023. Boothroyd says the 50-metre swimmers are a close group and the lane closures are deterring people from continuing to swim. (Jim Boothroyd/Submitted)

While 50-metre lanes are relatively wide and allow space in the middle for swimmers to pass one another, Boothroyd says narrower 25-metre lanes increase the risk of swimmers colliding or their hands hitting the lane ropes.

He says the 50-metre swims are busy with people of all ages who have become an "informal swim club," including parents training with their children.

The pool in Smithers still needs more lifeguards, despite recently hiring seven new students.
The pool in Smithers still needs more lifeguards, despite recently hiring seven new students.

A shortage of lifeguards has affected pools in communities across the province, including this pool in Smithers, B.C., pictured here in a 2019 photo. (B.V. Regional Pool and Recreation Centre)

Lifeguard shortage not just in Vancouver

A shortage of lifeguards has impacted cities around the province in recent years, with some municipalities responding by covering the cost of training for new lifeguards.

The park board says it is working to hire more lifeguards, reduce training costs and improve scheduling practices to attract new hires.

The board posted a job opening for multiple lifeguards Sept. 3, according to its website, and the positions are listed as casual, not permanent.

It recommended Hillcrest 50-metre swimmers go to the Vancouver Aquatic Centre in the meantime, according to its statement.

The Vancouver Aquatic Centre in downtown is the only other city-owned indoor pool with 50-metre lanes, while there is also one at the University of British Columbia's Aquatic Centre.

But Boothroyd and other swimmers say the Vancouver Aquatic Centre is already very busy, has a more competitive atmosphere, and is less accessible to many Hillcrest users, requiring them to take transit downtown or pay for parking.

He says the 50-metre swim closure wouldn't be as serious if Vancouver had more pools, and wants the Park Board to pay for lifeguard training and prioritize building more pools across Vancouver.

"We need to be getting all sorts of people access to pools and we need to be helping people learn to swim," said Boothroyd. "And doing things like this deters people from swimming."