Cate Brooks Sweeney


So we return again and again to capture that feeling. And as we do, we collectively become part of the place that we so treasure.

The allure of the springs follows the rising and setting of the sun and seasonal change. If you are lucky enough to swim in the healing waters routinely, you will find the beauty there as varied as the community that uses it.

Five a.m. is when the pool gates unlock, automatically. You are sure to watch your step walking down the grassy hill among the hissing raccoons that brazenly remind you it is still the nocturnal witching hour. It is surprising how many still insist on this early appointment. These are swimmers who indulge in little fanfare upon the cold entry into the water. But there is a quiet camaraderie and maybe even brief remarks between strangers on full moon nights when the water is lit-up white. A few laps in, you are likely to see some athletes on their training missions zip-up their wet suits, set their watches and start pounding out their goal times. As the sun begins to rise over the city, more and more of the regulars come into view, often working through an elaborate warm-up routine that may include walking the stairs, stretching their legs on the lifeguard stands and making social rounds.

By the time the sun has risen like a blinding bomb of light to those swimming towards the dam, the lifeguards take their chairs. The water begins to glow with an otherworldly green, clear enough to see the porous textures of limestone underneath from the top of the grassy hillside. Eventually children with water wings and adolescents with inflatable pool toys head down the steps to take their hillside spot. In the years I’ve swam at Barton Springs, I’ve seen bridal shoots, children learning to swim or mustering the courage to jump off the diving board, and athletes training to complete a solo English Channel crossing. I’ve shared the water with people being baptized in the early morning light and later watched a topless woman swim suddenly past me like a mermaid. And though at times you will hear some of the older regulars call the runners icing their legs “ankle dippers” and the athletes at times looking distressed while dodging a gaggle of swimmers with floral caps treading water and chatting, the truth is that this place is called the heart of Austin because of all the people it welcomes here.

By late fall and into winter, the weather transitions from blistering to mild to downright cold. Many hibernate from the springs until the next summer season. The craziest of us embrace the opportunity to swim through the dense fog that forms on the water on the coldest days. We claim that the water feels warmest on the coldest days, but really we just love how tough and euphoric it makes us feel. These days often are a more monochrome beauty. You probably won’t catch as dramatic a sunrise, as the sun has shifted south of the city skyline. The trees become leafless silhouettes around the perimeter and the once vibrant mossy green water begins to fade. Those that know all the shades and seasons of Barton Springs treasure the quiet, ethereal experience it offers and savor the final cool exhales of late spring weather before the crowds and the heat begin again.

I have swum in some remarkable places: Victorian baths with vaulted ceilings, the San Francisco Bay with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, ocean-fed pools that line a stunning coastline, alpine lakes in the quiet of a wilderness, fiords and sounds far from the heart of Texas that I call home. And while I always relish the unique pleasure of exploring new places through swimming, I know that there is no equal to the Soul of Austin. The way in which Barton Springs preserves and welcomes the wildness of what naturally exists in Texas, and that which resides in each of us is a beauty that transcends words or photographs. So we return again and again to capture that feeling. And as we do, we collectively become part of the place that we so treasure.