All appeared calm. The music pulsed, and the waves in the pool lapped against each other. But as the tempo rose, the water’s surface trembled, becoming increasingly agitated. The beat quickened and two heads popped up. Four arms gracefully followed, splashing upward for a second before shooting back into the water in perfect agreement. The swimmers twisted and somersaulted. In a blink, their heads, torsos, and thighs were again under the water, with only their calves and feet visible above. The legs began kicking in a series of synchronized, sharp movements, like two pairs of scissors slicing abstract shapes through the air.
But something was off. The music stopped abruptly, and the two girls paused. “Can you guys approach it more like bah-bap bah-bap bah?” their coach shouted, demonstrating the motions on the side of the pool.
To the left and right were two other coaches. One spoke into a microphone, running drills—figures practice—for six girls. The other used a bullhorn to coach three others.
“And then make sure you do the same thing underwater. How do you prepare...”
“You guys, do you know what happens if you’re going too fast? Do you know what happens? Instead of holding eight counts you’re holding 12...”
“OK, let’s do it again. Let’s go to seven. Five, six, seven...”
This was only the first hour of a four-hour practice. The girls, aged 13 to 15 years old, are competitive synchronized (synchro) swimmers, members of the Santa Clara Aquamaids, one of the most elite teams in the sport. Synchronized swimming often conjures images of Cheshire Cat smiles, exaggerated makeup, and the sparkly costumes seen in performances. The athleticism required is largely underrated—yet it combines the endurance and stamina of swimming, the flexibility and strength of gymnastics, and the artistry and expressionism of dance. The athletes are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool. They hold their breath while spinning and kicking, often upside down. They throw each other in the air, requiring the coordination of the whole team. They practice hundreds of hours for a single performance, but the training goes much further than just practicing routines. For these younger athletes, a large portion is practicing figures—the elements of synchro, like different types of leg positions. They hold positions for 20 seconds at a time, often with weights on their legs, train three to five hours a day, Monday through Friday, with extra hours on Saturday, and do this year-round, getting only a few vacation weeks each year.
Synchro got its start in the US in the early 1900s and gained in popularity in the ’50s with Esther Williams, who became famous for her “water ballet” in films such as Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet. It became an Olympic sport in 1984 and was at its height for the US in the 1990s. The Aquamaids was founded in 1964, with Kay Vilen as head coach. But when the current head coach, Chris Carver, came to the Aquamaids in 1984, the club had lost some of its strength, she said. After about 10 years, Carver built the club back up to be the leader of synchro. “It’s not overnight. You have to keep striving, keep striving,” she emphasized. “And then once you have that success, you’re a magnet and people come to you.”
Carver is a legendary coach. She coached the US National Team for over a decade, taking them on a gold medal–winning streak from 1991 to 1996; and in 1996, under her direction, the US Olympic team scored the first perfect 100 score in synchronized swimming’s Olympic history. She has had a hand in producing dozens of Olympic synchronized swimmers, including Kristina Lum Underwood who competed in the 2015 FINA World Championships with Bill May and in the 2000 Olympics, Anna Kozlova, a 2004 bronze winner, as well as Heather Simmons-Carrasco, Becky Dyroen-Lancer, and Jill Sudduth Smith, all competing in the 1996 Olympics.
Besides the Aquamaids, the region is home to other elite clubs such as the Walnut Creek Aquanuts, the San Francisco Merionettes, and one of the strongest collegiate varsity teams, the Stanford Women’s Synchronized Swimming Team.
Last year, the Stanford synchro team started practices at 6am, earlier than most of the other sports at the university. The Stanford athletes also work on endurance. The first few months of the year are spent swimming laps and conditioning. This includes training outside of the pool, lifting weights, and stretching. They train 20 hours a week while balancing a rigorous course load, said Head Coach Sara Lowe, who was on the bronze medal–winning 2004 US Olympic team coached by Carver.
The girls often have to make sacrifices for synchro. Karen Li, a rising sophomore on the Stanford team, missed her junior prom to go to nationals. “After [practice] I am just so exhausted…It wasn’t like I didn’t have friends,” she said. “I just couldn’t make the time to hang out with them, which is definitely very tough.”
The Bay Area is the most recognized hub for synchronized swimming in the world. But while synchro remains strong here, synchro in the United States as a whole has fallen behind. It began to decline at the start of the 21st century, when Russia won the gold medals in the team and duet events at the 2000 Olympics. Russia has won the gold in every team event since then, and the US only came to the podium in 2004, with bronze medals in the duet and team events. Russia, China, and Japan dominated the leaderboards at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The US only sent two athletes for the duets—they placed ninth—and wasn’t represented for the team event. “They didn’t qualify,” Carver said of the US team. “And you know, that’s really hurtful because that’s the leaders of synchro.”
A variety of factors led to the decline in US synchro. When Carver was Olympic coach, Bay Area synchro standing remained high, feeding both the Aquamaids and the national team. But once she stepped down, there weren’t enough new coaches trained. Plus, there was a rise in popularity with collegiate synchro programs. Collegiate synchro athletes train for a different purpose. Because their focus isn’t on synchronized swimming, they train less—they’re there for school. These collegiate teams might attract athletes who would be fit for a national or Olympic team but have decided to compete just on the collegiate level. These collegiate teams aren’t competing in international competitions.
But Carver is working on building US synchro up again, and the effort starts with the youth and the participation and dedication of their families and follows through to new, exciting events. While the athletes swim, their parents are volunteering to support the sport. The Aquamaids is a nonprofit and runs a bingo hall that brings in $12 million a year. The club has about $3 million to invest in the sport, community, and athletes each year, said Lisa Christian, the Aquamaids’ executive director.
The bingo hall is staffed entirely by volunteers. For the parents, volunteering these hours means they are helping raise money for the Aquamaids to pay for coaching and traveling for the synchro community in the Bay Area. The Aquamaids also supports USA Synchro—for example, when Carver was the US National Team coach she was paid by the Aquamaids. “[Being a nonprofit] allows us to equalize the support for anybody who wants to participate,” Christian said. These parents are lucky, explained Carolina Espinoza, one of the Aquamaid coaches. In other states, many parents have to personally shoulder the high costs of synchro.
Another element in the effort to bring back synchro nationwide is the mixed duet. Synchro is known for its team events, but there are also singles, duets, and trios. There are two types of routines: the technical, composed of the same moves everyone must perform, and the free.
The newest event, the mixed duet, allows men—once barred from competing—to perform with female partners.
Bill May, one of the most famous male synchronized swimmers, came out of retirement when the event was introduced in the 2015 FINA World Championships, winning a gold in technical and a silver in free. The FINA World Championships are held every odd year. They are held for a variety of water-related sports, including synchronized swimming, diving, swimming, and water polo. May has been practicing with his new partner, Kanako Kitao Spendlove, for the 2017 FINA World Championships in July. Carver is coaching the duo, as she originally coached May when he joined the Aquamaids as a teenager.
Watching May and Spendlove perform is not like watching a usual synchro performance. During a recent practice, Spendlove’s arms, shooting in and out of the water, are both slippery and smooth while also sharp, verging on animalistic. She slithers around May, who is powerful and graceful. In their free routine, she’s Medusa and he’s Perseus. The two are in conflict. By the end of the routine, Medusa is slain and Perseus is victorious. “It should be a mixed duet,” Carver said of these new routines. “It should emphasize men and women swimming together, not two people looking just alike.” It’s a risk, as the judging system hasn’t changed—but Carver explained that if they lower their expectations, the world won’t see what’s possible for the event.
May and Spendlove have a tough schedule to train around. Both are performers in Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and travel there constantly from the Bay Area, Carver following them. “Can you imagine getting to bed at one or two in the morning and then getting up at eight?” Carver asked. “You know, and starting to train, train all day, go eat something, and go right back to the same thing again?” But May and Spendlove are committed. May has a world title to uphold, and the new event provides US synchro the opportunity to once again become the leader.
Synchro goes beyond winning competitions, though. Both Coach Lowe and Coach Carver said their visions for their programs are to not only develop an athlete, but a better person. At Stanford, this means supporting the athletes in their studies and career aspirations, even if that means changing or easing practice schedules, Lowe said. “As much as it’s important for them to become a better athlete,” she continued, “it’s important for them to develop their skills for interviews and for jobs because they are eventually going to go on and need that.”
And even as Carver works on building US Synchro back up in international competitions, the goal for the Aquamaids is to be able to say the “heartbeat continues,” both for the coaches and athletes, to see these girls turn into strong women. “I don’t want it to ever be a puppy mill, where it’s just a business and you come in and you learn basic synchronized swimming, and maybe you go on and maybe you don’t,” Carver reflected. “I want it to be more than that. I want it to have more dimension.”
Select Women’s sports | Synchro
*Special thank you to Senior Lead Coach Sonja van der Velden for arranging photoshoot with the Aquamaids.
Article originally appeared in Issue 9.4 Perform (Print SOLD OUT)