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Pool sharks

Three TOC reporters go undercover (and underwater) at health clubs, hotels and condos to see if it's possible to sneak into the city's swankiest pools
By Novid Parsi, David Tamarkin and Cecilia Wong Photograph by Calbee Booth |
HOT TOWN, SUMMER IN THE CITY The Lakeshore Athletic Club's rooftop pool provides a nice panorama—for both the sun tanners and workers in nearby office buildings.

Chicago Athletic Association
12 S Michigan Ave at Madison St (312-236-7500). With our hearts practically thumping out of our chests, we tiptoed into the CAA, jumpy at every turn. Rule No. 1 about sneaking into a private health club: Be ready for anything, from skilled snipers to rabid security hounds. Luckily, no guard dogs greeted us—we just came this close to losing it when a stern-looking doorman asked if we needed help. But we recovered quickly and made it through to the athletic club's lovely watering hole. What we found was a true holdover from the times when swimming pools were referred to as natatoriums, without affectation or nostalgia. This year, the CAA celebrates its 115th birthday, and judging from the worn-but-polished marbled walls, classic columns and balcony lining the pool's perimeter, it probably hasn't changed a bit in the last 90. Low lighting, a molded ceiling and a grandiose lobby complete the Great Gatsby vibe—this place is like a cigar club for gentlemen, but instead of smoking stogies you smoke the competition (mostly older men and women), swimming in the other six lanes of the 20-yard pool.

East Bank Club
500 N Kingsbury St at Hubbard St (312-527-5800). Okay, so we didn't have the extra $2,420 in pocket change to pay the EBC's one-year membership, but we just had to check out this behemoth health club, rumored to be the workout palace of many a celebrity and pro-ball player. Unfortunately, day passes are nonexistent, and a short tour of the facilities is just that: a rushed look-but-don't-touch walk-through. Not that we would have tried to sneak in a cannonball, anyway—our tour guide was so straight-faced, we were scared to even ask for a peek inside the locker room. What we could tell was that the only thing more beautiful than the polished, sculpted and infinitely rich crowd of Caucasians that flock to this refuge from all those "other" health clubs (did you hear that people actually sweat at Bally's?) is the club itself, a breathtaking space full of gorgeous wood, sleek equipment and four sparkling pools. The standouts are the outdoor pools, of course, most notably the 25-yard lap pool. Talk about a view—you've got a clear one of River North, and another of the tanned bodies filling the rows of lounge chairs. But if you've got kids or, like us, don't mind young company if it means not being forced to swim laps, you can hang in the more relaxed kiddie pool. None of the pools are very deep—about four feet at the most.

Lakeshore Athletic Club
211 N Stetson Ave between South Water and Lake Sts (312-616-1087). With our derring-do set on "high," we strolled into the LAC like we owned the place. We'd heard that the Lakeshore Athletic Club had the best pool for hard-core swimmers in the downtown area. Yet before we could make our big splash, two attendants at the sign-in desk killed our confident stride and forced us to choose between a $20 day pass or a tour with one-day access to all of the facilities. Relieved to avoid possible arrest again, we took the tour and realized that all the rumors about this pool were true—it's reallly an immaculately kept, starkly lit 23-yard rectangle of cool chlorine blue. The water temperature was just right (nippy when you first step in, perfect after a few laps), and seven lanes easily accommodate swimmers during the bottleneck morning and after-work hours. (Also, a Speedo-clad man waiting to take the elevator with us to floor B5 said, "This is the best pool for serious swimmers in the downtown area." And we believe him.) After lapping it up, we eased into the whirlpool Jacuzzi next to the pool, and checked out the locker room, which is equipped with another whirlpool, sauna, steam room, showers and, thank God, sprayable deodorant and curling irons. Another pool, a small one on the third-floor rooftop, seemed perfect for sunbathing.

Grand Plaza
540 N State St at Grand Ave (888-354-6645). As the weather got hotter, we decided to take things to the next level. Sure, fancy health clubs are one thing, but what about condos? You know, those buildings downtown with the heavenly rooftop pools? With sweat trickling down our foreheads—the heat, or failing nerves?—we thought nobody would bother a person on a cell phone. Faking an argument on our cell must have made us look like we fit in at this River North condo perfectly, because the doormen didn't blink when we walked in and took the elevator to the ninth floor. Our palms were sweating at the thought of getting caught (we could barely push the button to the right floor), but once we stepped out of the elevator and ventured outside, we calmed down. The patio was massive, with tons of room to spread out and enjoy the relaxing view of downtown. It screamed "barbecue" (or, with this much room, "pig roast"). And barbecuing is exactly what almost everybody was doing. What people were not doing was swimming, which means that we had the small pool, made semiprivate by a fence and a wall of lush plants and flowers, all to ourselves.

River North Park
320 W Illinois St between Franklin and Orleans Sts (312-321-3200). Talk about security: The 24-hour, supervigilant doormen at this building buzzed in every single person, so we had no choice but to fake interest in renting a place so that they'd let us into the lobby. As pumped with adrenaline as we were, we don't know how we pulled off the rich British-aristocrat accent, but we did, and we learned that the folks at River North Park are the sensible type—they built some shelter over their water to stretch the outdoor swimming season beyond a few months each summer. This apartment tower has a ground-floor indoor lap pool open from 5am to 11pm every day. It's no-frills: just one long room with a pool. Windows on only one wall make it kind of dim, and the water's kept a little too warm for our liking. But from what we can tell, it's hardly ever used by the tenants. A solid choice for the serious swimmer.

The Sterling
345 N LaSalle Blvd at Kinzie St (312-494-9872). At the Sterling, the challenge wasn't getting in (getting a tour was relatively easy)—it was having to let go of the fact that we really weren't wealthy, nor looking to buy a place. Because we would've bought a condo here, just based on the pool. The Sterling's is unusual in that it's bigger than a bathtub. This 25-yard outdoor pool is lap-swimmer–friendly, and to complete the cool, moneyed-urbanite persona that we were perfecting by now, we really wanted to follow a swim with a tennis game on one of the two adjacent courts. On the sunny day we visited, the roughly four-foot-deep pool on the 14th floor had not one swimmer, but there were several sunbathers flashing a bronzed thigh for the office workers in the nearby buildings.

Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers
301 E North Water St at Columbus Dr (312-464-1000). Since we were getting better at mastering our nerves (read: we no longer felt like wetting ourselves when anyone wearing a uniform spoke to us), we thought we'd go for the big time: hotel pools. Our first trip was to the Sheraton, where we suppressed the butterflies going ape-shit in our stomachs, pretended to gab on our cell phone, found the elevator bank and rode victorious to the seventh-floor pool. But we found it less than impressive: five feet at the deepest end, 14.5 yards across and, by the smell of it, heavily chlorinated. Yet it ultimately won us over with its view of placid Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, soothing natural lighting from the skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows and peaceful ambience, thanks to the lack of hotel patrons, who were probably too busy inhaling funnel cakes at Navy Pier to check out this little oasis. After our dip, we warmed up on the intimate sun deck overlooking the river.

The Peninsula Hotel
108 E Superior St at Michigan Ave (312-337-2888). Powerless in the face of our growing addiction to swank pools, we were drawn to the stunning specimen at the Peninsula—but we weren't about to pay $435 a night to use it. So we screwed up our courage and rode the elevators to the lobby, casually strolled down the main hall and past the friendly desk clerks, and then took a second set of elevators to the 20th-floor spa. When the nice lady asked what we were looking for, we said, "A friend at the pool." She then pointed us to the 25-meter three-laner. Surrounded on two sides by two-floor-high walls of windows, this pool-with-a-view offered glimpses of Water Tower Place and Hancock Center every time we turned our heads to breathe. The locker rooms featured steam rooms, fluffy robes and private showers bigger than most people's bathrooms.

InterContinental Hotel
505 N Michigan Ave at Illinois St (312-944-4100). We'd heard the stories of the famously ornate pool at the InterContinental Hotel—a fitting final conquest. To access this particularly celebrated pool, we learned that there was only one thing we had to do: Shut up. We learned that asking questions would get us nowhere, but when we kept quiet, we got full access—no questions asked. We wandered around the lobby like tourists in town for the Taste until we found the elevators, scanned the buttons and pushed "FC" (Fitness Club). We entered the locker room, changed and grabbed a towel from the attendant (we remained totally silent and avoided eye contact throughout). Before we knew it, we were in the luxurious, sunlit-filled pool room, full of marble, intricate blue-and-white tile work, stained-glass windows, GreekRevival columns and statues, iron chandeliers and, of course, the Junior Olympic–size swimming pool. (Johnny Weissmuller, the original screen Tarzan, swam laps here when he was an Olympian.) At last we were in, so we could finally talk. But we were totally speechless.

Freestyle swimming

Too freaked to sneak? Go deep on the cheap at these public pools.
Eckhart Park
1330 W Chicago Ave at Throop St (312-746-5553). Architect Jens Jensen envisioned an hourglass-shaped pool when he designed Eckhart's aquatic center. It never really happened, but at least this natatorium's got a nice arched roof for when it rains.
Holstein Park
2200 N Oakley Ave at Palmer St (312-742-7554). Home to Bucktown's fatally hipster set, this 25-yard beauty is clean and virtually kid-free.
National Teachers Academy
55 W Cermak Rd between Clark and State Sts (773-534-9970). Thanks to a programming deal with the Chicago Park District, the beautiful pool in this new public school goes all general admission on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6 to 7pm, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 5 to 6pm. Skip Mondays through Fridays from 3 to 4pm, when it's overrun by kids and teenagers.
Portage Park
4100 N Long Ave at Irving Park Rd (773-685-7235). Boasting an Olympic-size indoor heated pool, misting poles and a 25-meter diving board, this free park's amenities will make you resent your expensive gym membership.
Washington Park
5531 S King Dr at Garfield Blvd (773-256-1248). There's a kiddie pool and a small, kidney-shaped pool here—but that's child's play compared to the main attraction: 50 (yep, 5-0) meters of alfresco waters in the big pool.
Whealan Pool Aquatic Center
6200 W Devon Ave between Merrimac and Melvina Aves (773-775-1666). Why dish out the $45 Great America's new water park demands when you can get the smaller—but just as wet—version for only $5?
Union Park
1501 W Randolph St between Justine St and Ogden Ave (312-746-5494). It might not be the biggest or the best, but we'll make sacrifices for the tranquility and breathing room this pool provides. —Cecilia Wong

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