Field Notes: Manoa Pool

Each month Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vibrant and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Weekday Afternoons at Manoa Pool.
Midday lap swims draw workers on lunch breaks; evening swims bring the similarly employed. Busy people talk less. Afternoon lap swims run from 3:30 to 5 on weekdays and 2 to 5 on weekends. These are the most social. 

Photos: David Croxford


Manoa Pool may be one of the oldest in the City and County of Honolulu’s recreational system, and it’s one of the busiest. Sunny afternoons can find upwards of 50 people splashing through the lanes at any given time—teenagers doing underwater handstands, parents teaching kids, seniors pacing themselves through aqua-therapy. That’s on the free swim side. The other half of the pool, the five lap lanes running its full 50-yard length, are the place’s heart: That’s where the regulars swim, diehards who come rain or shine, summer or winter, year after year. Between laps they catch up on news and gossip at the warm, shallow end; at the other end, where the water is 12 feet deep and invariably colder (Manoa used to be a diving pool, the high board long since removed for safety/liability reasons), they touch the wall and swim back without stopping. On sunny afternoons, it’s a near-guarantee you’ll find them at Manoa Pool.



Shower first—that’s a must at any public pool on Oahu—and find your lane. With only five devoted to lap swimming, Manoa has adopted an ingenious solution: Slow swimmers head out in the first lane by the wall, turn around and swim back in lane 2. Medium swimmers go out in lane 3 and come back in lane 4. They split their return lane with fast swimmers, who power out in lane 5 and frequently overtake the medium swimmers on their way back. If you see a mid-pool collision, you know a newbie’s in the water.



  • The power swimmers: The state’s No. 2 freestyler, a high school freshman, trains at Manoa. A swim coach in dark trunks glides down the fast lane, arms looping effortlessly. Once, an Olympic hopeful came, a whitewater blur who had the regulars turning their stopwatches on him. He freestyled 50 yards in less than 35 seconds—on every lap—while training for the 10K, which is 100 laps.
  • The old basketball player: In his prime, he donned a shiny Mao suit and played on an exhibition squad against the Harlem Globetrotters. “They played nine games, they lost 10,” quipped his swim buddy. They were a pair, both retired, pacemakers outlined by sharp rectangles on their bare chests. Then one day the buddy’s family came to tell the lifeguards he had passed away watching TV. Now the old basketball player breaststrokes slowly, breathing through a snorkel, alone in the slow lane.
  • The career lifeguard: She’s hardly known a life away from the water. In high school, she swam; in college, without it, she felt lost. Then she came back to a career at the pool. Work is behind her now, but when she feels the call she’s back, elbows high in a smooth, splash-less freestyle, at peace in her element, lap after comforting lap.
  • The mystery man: You never know when he’ll be there, or when he’s gone away. China, Israel, South Africa: Sometimes it’s business, sometimes it’s personal. He never really says. When he’s there the mystery man plunges into any open lane and strokes underwater—a pale, lanky dolphin, purposeful and swift, cutting through the blue, coming home.
  • The old professor: Blue cap, blue speedo, white goggles: The old professor’s routine never changes. He shows up between 4:15 and 4:30, hair slicked back, shirt tucked in. Discipline got him through competitive swimming in college, it helped him escape his country, and it brought him to one of the greatest universities in his field. When Matt Biondi started training there, the old professor developed a new habit. He waited until Biondi had powered through 15 laps—about a mile—and then, just as he started his 16th, the professor jumped in. This way he raced the flagging Olympian, at least in his own mind. He never won. But he never stopped trying.

Manoa Pool, 2721 Kaaipu Ave., Honolulu, HI 96822