The Synchronized Swimming Nationals

I never expected the Goodyear blimp to be hovering overhead. But a small directional sign might have been nice.

I was attempting to attend the U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Championships, and so far the sledding was tough. I knew enough to travel to Charlotte for the event, but more specific information was hard to come by. A Google search on the event’s name yielded little other than a link to an internet clearinghouse for matching volunteers to various activities. Only when I went to that site did I discover that I needed to find the Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatic Center. Yes, it was actually easier to find out how to volunteer for the event than it was to attend it.

Google Maps got me to the property, but from there I still had to triangulate my way all the way into the actual pool being used for the competition. No directional signage of any kind did I encounter, and in fact the venue was still fully open for daily business, despite the presence of a national-level championship in the house! I got behind a guy in line at the front desk who was checking in for his workout, purchased a ticket and a program and was directed to a door that led to the Promised Land.

Upon entering and locating a prime vantage point in the bleachers, I couldn’t help feeling as though I was being perceived as Here To Leer at all of the fit young girls prancing around in bathing suits. I was clearly not a friend or relative, so what was I doing there? Was it my imagination, or was I getting “looks” from the Synchro Moms?  Welcome to the world of the most under-marketed, misunderstood sport in America.

I was here on the penultimate day of the Championships, and the competition that I was witnessing was being waged to secure one of the eight spots in the next day’s finals in each type of competition; Solo, Duet and Team. In this, the morning session, Solos and Duets would compete, while in the evening the Teams would perform – capped off by a Combination exhibition.

I was solo for the Solos, but I had been able to lure my great friend and host Chrissie into tagging along for the evening session. She related to me that when she told people at work of her plans for the evening, she got the requisite double-take. But it was her Mom’s reaction that surprised her. Upon mentioning that she would be attending the Synchro Nationals, Chrissie was treated to a sepia-colored recollection of the golden era of Water Ballet – an era that her Mom had participated in. It was a conversation that the two had never had before, and it obviously brought back a flood of memories. Chrissie’s Mom proudly recalled that back in the day, people had paid 75 cents each to see her troupe perform. It truly made me wonder why 40 years later synchronized swimming languishes with such little appreciation.  But back to the pool…

The structure of the meet served to highlight the layers of difficulty of the sport. The Solo competition isolates how hard it is to do the individual moves that make up a performance. Because of the juxtaposition of explosion and grace, the choice of music is key – probably even more so than that of gymnastics or ice skating. Music that highlights grace does little justice to the explosive moves, and vice versa. Therefore few if any of the musical numbers complimented both aspects of a performance. As the competition moved on, routines done to blues or gospel seemed to mesh the best – and Rosilyn Tegart of San Antonio’s University of The Incarnate Word nailed it with an inspired choice of “Proud Mary” to highlight her grace in the early stages of her routine and her athleticism in the latter stages.

Upon the completion of the Solo competitions, came the Duets, which added the layer of difficulty inherent in performing each challenging move either in perfect tandem with, or in perfect counter-balance to that of a partner. And when the Team competition takes place, the added layer of coordination and split-second timing among eight athletes becomes even more impressive.

As the day wore on, I noticed that Ohio State University had an outsized presence in and around the pool. They carried themselves as champions, bearing T-shirts that read “Life. Death. Team.” When one of their own was competing in the Solos or Duets, the entire team was visible and highly vocal in their support. And when they entered the pool for practice, they did so as a group – holding hands. Chrissie and I were intrigued enough to seek out some reliable background information. We asked a Synchro Dad.

The species of Synchro Dad is easy to spot. He’s sitting among a bevy of women, with his eyes glued to…the newspaper. A quick nudge to the ribs alerts him that his daughter is about to perform and he snaps to alertness. Then when her routine is done, it’s back to the USA Today Sports section with the hotel’s “Compliments Of” sticker on the front.

Our Ohio State Synchro Dad was happy to entertain our questions, and we learned that OSU is to synchronized swimming what John Wooden’s UCLA teams were to college basketball. In the 28 years that the sport has conducted an NCAA-sanctioned championship, OSU has captured 21 national titles – although of late Stanford has somewhat supplanted them.

We asked him about the motivation for taking part in the sport. Was there any kind of career path that came of it? He smiled as if he’d entertained that conversation many times, and explained that the ultimate goal is to make the national team and compete in the Olympics. There are limited entertainment-oriented opportunities in shows that take place on high-end cruise ships and in Las Vegas hotels. But unlike the scenario that exists within many women’s collegiate sports, few former competitors go on to coach. Most girls simply hang up their nose plugs when they graduate. They take part simply because they love to do so.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was an exhibition put on by four young ladies who were learning synchronized swimming through a program in place at the club hosting the Championship. They had only been at their chosen sport for less than a year, and their timing was less than, well, synchronized, but as they progressed through their routine, the crowd in the bleachers rose to show their encouragement and appreciation. And the musical number accompanying the performance? “Walking On Sunshine”, of course.

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