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‘It’s made a huge difference’

Chuck Louden is a longtime lifeguard at the neighborhood’s Hamilton Recreation Center.

Chuck Louden is a longtime lifeguard at the neighborhood’s Hamilton Recreation Center.


If there’s a story that needs telling, you’d want Neil Hart to tell it. That became apparent one bright recent morning when, after a 3,000 yard swim, he turned to one of his favorite topics: San Francisco Tsunami Aquatics, the gay, lesbian, trans and straight-friendly adult swim league that has been a fixture at Fillmore’s Hamilton Recreation Center for three decades.

Hamilton’s dedicated aquatics community helped launch the team in 1986 and, in the aughts, helped renovate and reshape the multigenerational facility at 1900 Geary Boulevard the neighborhood’s diverse population enjoys today.

When Hart began swimming there in the early 1980s, he was a bit of a magpie who swam where it was convenient. “I used to go between Hamilton’s pool and the North Beach pool with my Rec and Park tear-off tickets,” he says.

Hart lived in the Marina then, so either location worked. Yet Hamilton had a particularly welcoming community of swimmers and lifeguard Chuck Louden — he’s still a lifeguard at Hamilton today — who helped many aspiring swimmers refine their stroke and technique. It was also a place to meet others who were passionate about swimming and looking to make new friends.

Hamilton’s pool, though grittier then, provided an oasis for the team. “They did an excellent job of keeping the basketball players and swimmers coexistent,” says Hart. “And it was safer and easier to get there.”

Neil Hart has been swimming at the pool at the Hamilton Rec Center for decades.

Neil Hart has been swimming at the pool at the Hamilton Rec Center for decades.

Once the team established a home at Hamilton, it grew and prospered. “People would see us and ask to join,” Hart says. “Rec and Park would recommend us to interested swimmers. We picked up a good number of members that way.”

Now the Tsunami team’s membership stands at about 300, due in no small measure to having a stable and secure home base.

Some may recall that the old Hamilton Rec Center was inauspicious at best — especially compared to the bright and welcoming multigenerational gym, pool and playground at the corner of Steiner and Geary streets today.

“Ten years ago, the idea of children’s swim time and toddlers on swings was laughable — or terrifying,” says Hart of the broken glass and grimy interior that confronted visitors. “Today we have community space for seniors and a playground where there was once a glass-strewn parking lot. It’s truly a multi-generational facility.”

To the delight of swimmers with a taste for lane lines and chlorine, the post-renovation pool boasts a significant increase in capacity and upgrades including water slides, new locker rooms and meeting facilities. It is open to all for a modest fee.

Photographs of Hamilton Rec Center by Daniel Bahmani

Photographs of Hamilton Rec Center by Daniel Bahmani

“The goal with any improvement is to maximize use and serve diverse communities,” says Connie Chan of the city’s Recreation and Park Department.

That lofty goal often becomes enmeshed in nitty gritty details like pool length. Many city pools were designed at a nonstandard 100-foot length to discourage use in competitions. But that design actually serves to constrain capacity for all other uses as well. By standardizing the length at 75 feet, Rec and Park was able to add a dedicated wading pool area and increase available lap lanes.

“The result is that lap swimmers, senior citizens and toddlers can all use the facility at the same time,” says Chan. Hamilton’s pool, with its new design, is open an hour less per week than Balboa, but offers 250 percent more time for lap swimming and swim lessons.

As more people use the Hamilton Rec Center, it enlivens the surrounding neighborhood. Hart sees these changes as a plus. “Now it’s a facility that knits this diverse community together,” he says. “That’s really awesome.”

Longtime lifeguard Chuck Loudon will tell you it’s all about those sleek new slides. “We’re booked nine out of 10 weekends with children’s parties,” he says. “It’s made a huge difference.”