More Thoughts On Synchronized Swimming
Admit it. When you read the words “synchronized swimming” you snickered. One of two things came to mind: (a) a grainy black and white newsreel featuring the watery equivalent of the Hokey Pokey, or (b) the water ballet scene from Caddyshack. Don’t lie – you were thinking Little Miss Sunshine with water wings. To be totally honest, I thought the same thing. But was I ever wrong. And within 15 minutes of my first exposure to Synchro (slang used by us synchronized swimming insiders) I became a convert.
In a word, synchro is astonishing to behold. In another word, a synchro event is inconspicuous. No, that’s wrong. They would have to set off fireworks and have jet flyovers every ten minutes just to reach the beginning threshold of inconspicuous. Having just attended the U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Championships in Huntersville, NC, I feel justified in saying that I’ve witnessed a new standard set for hiding your light under a bushel, as they say here in the Bible Belt.
But first, the sport itself. The effortlessness of motion and coordination of movement required by synchro is an impressive athletic feat in and of itself, but when you take into account that these athletes are treading water the whole time, it is truly remarkable. I found myself repeatedly checking the depth markings on the side of the pool to verify that they were never indeed coming in contact with the bottom of the pool (“yup, still 16 feet”). I grew more and more amazed at both the athletic accomplishment AND the casual way that each swimmer regarded what she had just done.
A little comparison: While recently attending the U.S. Badminton Championships, I, like most washed-up jocks, easily deluded myself into musing that if I were a little younger and so inclined, I could take up the sport and eventually play it at a pretty decent level. When beholding synchronized swimming however, not for a fraction of a nanosecond did I entertain the notion that I could EVER, under any circumstances, make it through the first day of synchro practice –even in my athletic prime!
Synchro is a melding of explosiveness and grace. The former is best characterized by the height of the leaps that the competitors make from under the water – it was not uncommon to see leaps that brought the athlete out of the water from the waist up. Remember, this is done without any solid base – only the propulsion of the athlete’s limbs themselves!
The grace is displayed throughout, but is particularly embodied in a “common” move in which the athlete does the equivalent of a handstand in the water, slowly lowering herself down, often in a slow twirling pattern until her toes deftly glide into the water leaving not a ripple. Again, this is done solely through body control achieved by treading water with her arms. Oh and by the way…she’s holding her breath. I actually took that for granted initially – until I decided to count how long some competitors were under water. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen seconds, all while exerting strenuous physical effort!
While witnessing all of this delighted me as a Sports Fan, the sports marketer in me became increasingly distressed that the entire environment surrounding the event was more “private club” than “compelling sport practiced by elite athletes”. If ever there were a sport that deserved to be glamorized, this is it – and this from a guy who is not typically inclined to seek out glamour. With synchronized swimming, glamour doesn’t need to be manufactured or pre-packaged as is the case with so much of our entertainment these days (do the words “Dancing With The Stars” sound familiar?). Instead it simply needs to be allowed to shine through. And a little marketing wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
Some more perspective: Team USA Gymnastics is one of the most financially sound and successful of all of the NGB’s (National Governing Bodies) of Olympic sports. Michael Phelps aside, women’s gymnastics draws the highest ratings during any Summer Olympics. Its champions sign lucrative endorsement deals and become household names. Even in non-Olympic years, televised women’s gymnastics ratings stack up well against all but the biggest of major sports. People in great numbers watch enthralled. So get this – synchronized swimmers deliver all of the grace and beauty of gymnastics, while treading water and holding their breath! So why is it that one sport’s participants are rock stars and the other sport’s are regarded with dismissive humor? A few tweaks to synchro’s image might be in order.
Let’s start with the name. Or to be more specific, let’s start by changing the name. In comparison to the amount of gymnastic and acrobatic activity on display, there is notably less actual swimming involved in the sport. In fact, the Solo competition is basically a chlorinated gymnastic floor routine (and BTW, am I the only one who notices that Solo Synchronized Swimming is an oxymoron?). If I were the Grand Poobah of All Sport, I would decree that Synchronized Swimming be renamed Aquatic Gymnastics. I was considering the name AquaSynchro Gymnastics, but with all those “k” sounds I figured it might scare small children out of the pool (which of course would now be called an AquaGym).
OK, that’s done. Let’s see what else…
To be continued…