Before moving to Switzerland, I swam competitively in the United States for 16 years and then coached for six years. This took me to pools in 25 of the 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Thailand.
Now that I am living in Europe and coaching a club swim team, I have swum in and/or coached at pools Italy, Greece and many regions in Switzerland. There are a few noticeable differences in swimming pool etiquette in Europe and the United States that I have observed.
Pool deck shoes.
In the U.S., I never thought twice about what shoes I wore while walking on the pool deck and no one ever asked me to change my shoes.
In Europe, it is customary to remove your shoes before entering the locker room or pool deck (often, you must go through the locker room to get to the pool). There is a specific place where everyone leaves their shoes outside the locker room on a shoe bench.
Swimmers will walk barefooted or wear sandals; coaches and officials wear pool-specific sandals/shoes or also go barefooted. There are also plastic shoe covers (like ones you might see a doctor wearing) that you can slip over your outdoor shoes if you would rather not remove your shoes.
At first, I thought this rule was strange, but now that I am accustomed to it, and I think it is great. It helps keep the pool deck clean and free of debris that could harm bare feet, and it also helps to keep the pool environment sanitary.
Showering before swimming.
In 16 years of competitive swimming in over 60 different pools, not once did anyone ever suggest that I (or my teammates) should take a shower before getting in the pool. We would often do dryland exercises in the grass outside the pool before practice and get covered in grass and sweat. Then, we would simply dive into the pool for practice covered in sweat and grass. This was normal operating procedure for our team.
In Europe, the competitive swimming culture is similar to that of the U.S. (i.e., not many competitive teams will shower before diving in for practice). However, if a lifeguard is present, he or she will offer a few polite reminders. During general admission at indoor pools, the lifeguards are very adamant about all patrons showering before entering the water. It is a rule, and everyone must follow it.
At outdoor pools, it is actually impossible to enter the pool deck area without first showering because the pool is fenced in except for the few entrances/exits. At these gateways there is a shower that you must walk through. If you go through the shower gateway without rinsing off, a lifeguard will promptly remind you to rinse off before entering the water.
Why is there such a disconnect between the United States and Europe with showering before entering the water?
In Europe and most specifically, in Switzerland, research-based knowledge is taken very seriously, especially regarding the health and safety of citizens. Based on the 2006 World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Recreational Water Environments, it is not surprising that showering before swimming and removing shoes are commonplace in Europe, especially since the WHO is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
All pools are strongly recommended to have a primary and secondary disinfectant system in place due to the known risks of Cryptosporidium. A recent research study of indoor pools in Switzerland concluded that showering before swimming should be enforced as well as conducting regular public awareness campaigns on the benefits of showering before swimming in order to decrease the disinfection byproducts concentration.
Just like most Americans, most Europeans don’t want to shower before getting into the water because it is inconvenient and often makes you cold. The difference is that in Europe, lifeguards strongly and adamantly enforce the showering before entering the water, and the showers are conveniently placed (for both indoor and outdoor pools).
For the competitive swim teams, swim coaches worldwide need to help create a new habit amongst their swimmers. Often, when a competitive swim team is training, the coach serves as the lifeguard. Therefore, if the coach is not enforcing showering before swimming, the swimmers will not shower.
While there are many differences between the swim cultures of America and Europe, one thing should remain constant — health and safety in swimming pools.
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