Defremery Pool in West Oakland. Credit: Courtesy of Leon Sykes

Leon Sykes remembers clinging to the wall of the Roberts Park swimming pool in the Oakland hills. Unable to swim, the 6-year-old boy looked on as friends splashed and played out of reach.

Oakland public pools open this summer, Monday-Saturday

Public swim fees are $1 for children, $2 for seniors (55 and older) and $3 for adults. Lap swim fees are $4 for seniors and $6 for adults, with discounted rates for member passes. 

DeFremery, Lions, Temescal and Fremont pools each have swim teams that compete on Saturdays. For more information visit Oakland Aquatics.

Sykes’s parents soon signed him up for swim lessons, and two years later he was a member of the public swimming team at Fremont Pool in East Oakland. At age 11, Sykes became a junior volunteer lifeguard, receiving training in rescue breathing and first aid. After graduating from Oakland Tech, a friend encouraged him to become certified as a lifeguard. Sykes spent the next 15 years working at the DeFremery Recreation Center swimming pool in West Oakland.

When the pandemic closed city facilities, Sykes, now 37, was unable to schedule lessons for his son, Leon III. But this summer, after ramping up staffing and lifeguard certification courses, Oakland Parks, Recreation and Youth Development is gearing up for its first full-capacity swimming summer in three years. 

Public pools open Saturday, June 4, and swimming lessons start June 6. 

“A lot of families have been impacted because of pools being shut down or schedules being so reduced,” said Sykes, who has already signed up Leon III, now 5, for swimming lessons.

The city is currently holding a weeklong lifeguard certification course. Another session is planned for early August. Sign-ups are available on the city’s website. Registration is $100 for Oakland Unified School District students, $190 for Oakland residents and $225 for non-residents. Lifeguard part-time pay ranges from $18-$23 per hour. 

A water safety instructor certification course is being held Sunday, May 15 (9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.) at Fremont High’s pool, with a registration fee of $225 for Oakland residents and $270 for non-residents. Part-time pay for that position ranges from $21-$25.

The aquatics unit is also seeking recreational aides to assist with swimming activities, recreational attendants to provide customer service, and pool managers to oversee operations.

According to 2019 data from USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, only 1.4% of year-round swimmers identified as African American or Black and 3.5% as Hispanic or Latino. The 2018 report shows that more that 64% of Black children have little or no swimming ability, compared to 45% for Latinx children and 40% for white children.

A lifeguard watches swimmers at Oakland’s DeFremery Recreation Center pool. Credit: Courtesy of Leon Sykes

Sykes said he hopes more people get involved to keep Oakland pools open this summer so that kids can learn to swim.

“You look at kids of predominantly minority backgrounds, and you’re looking at a disparity,” he said. “Everyone has a lot of catching up to do.”

Oakland residents have long been passionate about swimming. When Oakland delayed the opening of pools in 1998 due to budget problems, West Oakland residents broke through fencing at DeFremery Park and started the summer swimming season on their own, reported. “They took part of the fence down, brought the coolers and said, ‘Hey, we’re ready to swim,’” Kerry Salisbury, the city’s aquatics coordinator at the time told The San Francisco Chronicle. The city opened DeFremery and Temescal, in North Oakland, within days.

Oakland, a city with more than 440,000 residents, has five pools open for public swimming this summer. Lions Pool in Dimond Park is the oldest Oakland public pool, constructed in 1929 for $18,000. A 1939 Oakland Tribune photo of Lions shows almost exclusively white swimmers at a time when housing discrimination forced Black residents to West Oakland. The city’s other pools include DeFremery, East Oakland Sports Center, Fremont High School, and Temescal, next to Oakland Technical High School, which hosted several national synchronized swimming championships in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Lake Temescal, run by the East Bay Regional Park District, is expected to have lifeguards on duty starting in late May. The Roberts Park swimming pool is closed this summer for maintenance, which will likely put extra demand on the city’s public pools.

Coronavirus restrictions made lifeguard certification difficult the past two years, and many lifeguards allowed their certification to expire. Justice Bolden, recreation supervisor for Oakland aquatics, said he’s “expecting a strong return to the water for Oaklandlers of all ages” this summer. In response, the city’s recruitment has been shifted into high gear. Staffing levels will determine hours of operation for each pool this summer.

The city’s aquatics department resumed lifeguard certification last summer, when it certified about 50 lifeguards. Earlier this year, the department certified from a 18-candidate class—mostly of Oakland High and Oakland Tech students—at Oakland High’s Live Oak pool.

Sykes, who teaches media classes at Fremont High, said he will return to work at DeFremery Pool this summer. He hasn’t worked there since his swimming mentor, James Hardy Sr. died in late 2019. Hardy worked for many years as a lifeguard during morning lap swim at Temescal Pool.

“I knew James when I was a little kid, but as an adult he was someone who showed us the ropes,” Sykes said. “Not necessarily in the lifeguard aspect but in the community aspect. He was a staple in the community. And it wasn’t that he coached me, but as a young Black child to see a Black man working in the aquatics system it was something that became important. We don’t often see Black people in the aquatics field.”

Nick Lozito is a Sportswriter and designer whose work has appeared in The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He is a graduate of Oakland Technical High School and Sacramento State University.