syn·chro·nized swim·ming

noun

1. a sport in which members of a team of swimmers perform coordinated or identical movements in time to music.

To other people, synchronized swimming draws up images of “water ballet”, Esther Williams and comments like, “that’s not even considered a sport.”

There are many stereotypes that exist about this sport and most of them are born out of misunderstanding. It’s a very obscure sport and many people see the suits, hair and makeup and forget to admire the athleticism involved.

Synchronized swimming has taken up 8 years of my life. It has kept me in good athletic shape and it has given me a group of lifelong friends. When I was younger I participated in both dance and speed swimming. But when I first saw synchro I was hypnotized. It combined dance and swimming into one incredible sport that I had never seen before. When I was 12 years old, I decided to train synchro full time.

Synchro has become a way for me to express myself. I don’t particularly love to be the center of attention but I do love impressing people with the passion I have for my sport. As a way of breaking down stereotypes and trying to get more people educated about synchro I’ve written down the basics to understanding the sport of synchronized swimming.

ba·sic

noun

1. the essential facts or principles of a subject or skill.

Esther Williams is known as the face of synchronized swimming. Her movies not only effected the entertainment world, but inspired the idea of dancing in the water. Her ‘water ballet’ has transformed into an elite, complex sport.

There are several routines that can be done in synchro. The first is a team, which consists of four to eight swimmers (although eight is ideal). Then there are trios, duets and solos. Routines can be anywhere between two and four minutes, depending on the age and experience of the swimmers.

Routine music is generally made up of at least four different music pieces that are cut together using audio software. The goal of a good piece of music is to draw the judges into the performance. It is ideal to have building crescendos and soft melodies to balance each other out. This also adds depth and variation to the choreography.

All routines have a central theme, an idea that everything is built on, like the choreography, suits, headpieces and makeup. It all connects in one central idea. The music is usually counted in eights and in order to create a synchronized routine, each move is assigned a specific count. Hundreds of counts run through my head everyday at practice. After a while, the routine becomes muscle memory and my body responds to the music on instinct.

One question I always get asked (besides the obvious “How long can you hold your breath?”), is “How can you hear the music underwater?” The answer to that my friends, is a lovely piece of equipment called an underwater speaker. Everything that the judges hear above the water can also be heard under the surface.

The essentials for practice include, a suit, swim cap, goggles and a noseclip. Do you remember when you were a little kid and you were swimming at the pool and you inhaled water up your nose? Everything started burning, your eyes, your lungs and your nose. A noseclip saves you from experiencing that feeling every time you go underwater. It allows you to easily switch from right-side-up to upside down.

The most important thing to remember when you watch synchro is that it’s supposed to look easy! That’s part of what we train for, it’s not any fun to watch a group of people look like they’re working themselves to death. Like any performance, the audience wants to be drawn in, they want to believe that they too could execute these routines. It may look easy, but there are a lot of things that happen that no one can see.

Synchronized swimmers are not allowed to touch the bottom or the sides of the pool. If their legs are in the air, swimmers must use different sculling techniques with their hands. If they are right side up, they must use their legs and ‘eggbeater’.

This is an underwater image of what eggbeater looks like

The faster your legs move, the more pressure you have pushing the water beneath you and therefore, you are higher above the water. Most of the time, the legs are the only things keeping the swimmer afloat because above water, their arms are performing the choreography.

When swimmers are upside down it gets more complicated. There are many different sculling techniques that can be used depending on what position the body is in. The most common one is ‘support scull’.

The pressure from the hands pushes the water towards the bottom of the pool, which propels the swimmer up. It is important to keep the hands parallel to the bottom of the pool. When performing any move in synchro it is most impressive to the judges to be as high out of the water as possible.

Routines are divided into ‘strokes’, ‘hybrids’ and ‘lifts’. Strokes are all the things that are performed with your arms while you’re eggbeatering. Hybrids are any moves that focus on the legs which tend to be upside down.

An example of strokes in a routine
An example of a hybrid in a routine

The video above is an example of my duet partner and I performing a hybrid. There is no music playing, my coach is just counting through the microphone for us. We do this sometimes so we can pull out specific parts of our routine that need to be “cleaned” and matched for synchronization.

Lifts are the most impressive part of synchronized swimming. The girls on the team use their sheer strength to lift and throw multiple girls into the air without using the bottom. There are many different kinds of lifts and different ways to lift girls.

Another basic element of synchronized swimming is ‘landrilling’. This is a way for swimmers to practice and go over counts in their routines without having to be in the water. Landrilling is when you block through the moves in your routine with the music. Every position in the water has a corresponding hand/arm position on land that can be used. It is an important tool for a team to practice synchronization.

Figures make up 50% of the score that decides final placement. Before swimming all our routines we each individually complete 4 different figures in front of a panel of judges. Figures are done without music and we are judged on our control and height as we move slowly between different positions with our legs. During the figure portion of the meet, we are all required to wear plain black suits and white caps to remain anonymous to the judges. Below is an example of one figure.

judge

verb

1. form an opinion or conclusion about.

Like any other judged sport, there can be a lot of bias in the scores that certain routines receive. Different things look appealing to different people, so there is a lot of personal opinion involved.

Routines are judged on a scale of 1–10, with 10 being a perfect score. As evidence of our increasingly complex sport, the bar keeps getting higher for gaining that perfect 10. The last routine to score tens from all the judges was the gold winning US Olympic Team in 1996. Since then, Russia has dominated the sport on the world level. At the meets in my level of competition, most swimmers recieve 7's or 8's.

There are three different judging categories: technical, difficulty and artistic impression. Ideally, there are 15 judges, five for each of the categories. Each judge submits their score, then the highest and the lowest scores are both tossed out and the other scores are averaged in order to compute the composite score.

The technical category focuses on execution. How synchronized were the swimmers? How well did they execute the choreography? Was the routine high, sharp and clean? Were their legs extended and toes pointed? This examines the overall ability and performance of the swimmers.

The artistic impression judges measures the manner of presentation of the swimmers and how well they connected with the judges and the music. They evaluate how accurately the theme was portrayed. This examines the connection between the music and the choreography as well as taking the suits and headpieces into account.

The difficulty category examines the positions themselves. How hard is the routine? In general, the faster the choreography, the harder it is to execute, therefore it has greater difficulty. Certain moves are also harder to perform than others. These judges also examine what point in the routine these moves are executed. Positions will be awarded more difficulty if they are at the end of the routine because it is harder to execute them when you are tired.

Each judge has a piece of paper in front of them in order to write down notes about what they’re seeing so that they can give out an accurate score. However, judging is very subjective and as the sport has adapted, so has the requirements and standards for routines.

ap·pear·ance

noun

1. the way that someone or something looks.

Synchronized swimming is first and foremost a performance sport. There is a lot more work that goes into a routine than just the choreography and music.

In order to display a central theme, swimmers wear custom made swimsuits and headpieces. Each piece is created entirely from scratch. Each swimmer is sized and then an expert seamstress sews different types of fabric onto a nude lining. Once that is complete the detailing begins. Anthing can be applied to a suit. Coaches spend hours decorating with rhinstones, glitter, paint and sequins. Everything most be applied by hand. From beginning to end one suit can take 4–12 hours to complete depending on the complexity.

The next part of the costume is the headpiece that corresponds with the suit/theme. It is generally smaller and has a net backing with loops. The headpieces are applied by sticking bobby pins through the loops and into the gel on the head.

The final piece on a synchronized swimming “costume” is the make up. We perform in the water so there are different brands of make up we use to ensure that it stays on while we’re performing. In the end, it’s similar to theater makeup. We have to apply the everything as boldly as possible so that the judges can see it. We use foundation, blush, eyeliner, eyeshadow, lipstick, eyebrow pencil and mascara. Although there have been some rules limiting excessive makeup, we still have the ability to use it to express our theme through the design and colors we pick.

All of these details take a lot of time to put together. They are all judged through artistic impression and they contribute to the overall feel of a routine.

gel·a·tin

noun

1. a virtually colorless and tasteless water-soluble protein prepared from collagen and used in food preparation as the basis of jellies, in photographic processes, and in glue.

Let me describe the unfortunate ritual of “gelling”. Our sport is built around performance. Like any theater or dance act, we must present to our audience, in this case, that is the judges. The sole purpose of gelling is that it keeps our hair out of our face while we swim. Apparently someone in the history of our sport decided that swim caps were too ugly to be used in performance.

The whole process takes about an hour. The first step is to get a nice bun. A tight ponytail = tight braids = a good bun for gelling. Then you’re ready for the first coat of gel. You have to mix six packets of knox gelatin with boiling water to get the right consistency. Then you paint it onto your head with a hair dye brush. You paint a section, then comb over the area with a fine toothed brush to make sure the gel permeates and settles near the scalp. Then you brush over the top with another layer of gel. After you finish your whole head, you wait 5–10 minutes before mixing another batch of gel in order to paint on a second coat.

Once you’re done, you’re left with a shiny coat of gel that is the perfect consistency to push in bobby pins. This whole process ensures that the headpiece stays firmly on our heads and our hair stays in place.

com·pe·ti·tion

noun

1. the activity or condition of competing.

Each year I compete in 6 competitions. Our season starts in September when we begin choreographing and practicing our routines. The first competition is the end of February and then we have one competition a month with our last one in July. We usually have about 3 travel meets a year. All 8 swimmers travel together with our coaches. Our moms rotate “chaperone” duty at each meet so they cook for us and help transport us all from the hotel to the pool. I’ve made some of my favorite memories during travel meets. We all stay in hotel rooms together so it’s like a weeklong sleepover with all my best friends.

Competitions can be incredibly stressful. There are a lot of late nights, early mornings, nap times and a very large quantity of food. At meets we get stuck in “synchro” mode and I forget for a while that anything else exists besides the people on my team. There is a huge pressure to perform and everyone on my team has felt some sort of anxiety and nervousness before a competition swim.

There’s a reason we all do this sport. It’s a moment for us to be in the spotlight, to show off a skill of athleticism. There is no better feeling in the world than when someone comes up to you after a swim and tells you that they loved your routine or that you were beautiful to watch in the water. It’s an even bigger compliment when a judge approaches you specifically and talks about how impressed they are with your swim.

One of my proudest moments in this sport was after I finished my final swim at Age Group Nationals and I got out of the water and every single one of my coaches was crying. We had all put so much of our time, energy and passion into these routines and it was wonderful for them to see all our hard work pay off.

Above is my Senior Free solo from the North Zone meet in 2015. Below is the Russian Olympic team competing in Bejing in 2008.

re·la·tion·ship

noun

1. the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.

Synchronized swimming is a very obscure sport. As a result of this, there aren’t very many athletes and even fewer coaches. Everybody “knows” everybody else. In some ways, this creates a nice family environment. However, like all families, there are feuds and jealousies that get in the way. There is a lot of pride and pettiness that comes with a female dominated sport. A lot of the coaches and judges are from the older generation and many of them firmly stand by the fact that ‘their way is the right way’.

To give you an idea of just how tight knit this environment is, I’ll give you an example. I was at the Senior National meet a couple weeks ago. This is the most important meet within our country because only the most elite athletes qualify. Looking around the pool deck, I could see 8 former Olympians. Six of them now coach club teams around the country and the other two are still swimming. In fact, I competed against one of the 2012 Olympians in both the solo and the duet competition. Among those Olympians are countless other National Champions, World qualifying swimmers and Collegiate National Champions. In a sport as small as synchro, the top swimmers are mixed in with everybody else.

In some ways this is an advantage. Not many people have the ability to train closely with so many high level athletes. Every team in the country boasts at least one coach who was a former Olympian, National Team Member or a National Champion. However this type of environment harbors hostility as well. Many old swimming rivalries are carried on as those swimmers become coaches. Judges have incredible power over what swimmers qualify for certain meets. Because the sport is so small, many of the coaches become judges and that creates drama if they start judging in favor of their own swimmers.

However, beneath the surface, it’s a true testament to the passion people have for the sport. Swimmers become coaches and share their knowledge and love with all of the girls they coach. Many of my coaches are my biggest role models. They discipline us and teach us what it means to be a team and work together. They support us all and love us unconditionally.

On a more personal level, many of my best relationships have formed through synchro. We spend 20+ hours a week practicing together which creates a unique kind of friendship that I haven’t been able to duplicate in any other environment.

Our sport demands a level of trust you only have among your good friends. We strive to be perfectly synchronized so we train to be attuned with our own bodies and the bodies and movements of our teammates around us. A good team trusts each other 100%; you have to in order to feel comfortable executing all of your routines. It’s all about timing and communication.

There is a whole different level of silent communication that occurs under the water. Synchro swimmers communicate through gestures, motions and sounds. We nudge each other into the correct pattern, or count the music underwater if it’s hard to hear. The routine that the judges see above the water is only half of what’s really going on.

I’ve worked with my duet partner for the past four years. Within the first six months of training we had established the type of relationship that normally takes years to develop. We had to in order to compete at the national level. Now, four years later, we have a very natural relationship. I am never embarrassed around her and her presence puts me at ease. As a result of training a duet together for so long, we are always aware of where the other one is when we’re around each other. My parents have commented about seeing me make a movement and watching her unconsciously react to it by shifting along with me.

These open relationships are incredibly unique. We’ve seen each other in pain, crying, or ecstatic after a fantastic swim. We’ve seen each other attempting to pull on a suit, dressed in ratty hotel clothes or dressed up for a fancy dinner. There are no boundaries in our sport, which forces you to be very comfortable with what you say and do.

That doesn’t mean that all of my teammates have been my best friends. Not by a long shot. There’s always drama when you have 8+ girls spending so much time together. But in the end, we’ve always managed to pull it together for a competition swim. I think that’s the best part of this sport, just knowing that no matter what, I can depend on these girls for the rest of my life.

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