Sink or Swim: Synchronized swimmers jump for joy

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COURTESY PHOTO / WILLIAM CHANG

Learning how to compete in the sport of synchronized swimming starts with something as simple as holding a tray. The swimmer holds their hands out in front of them. They turn their palms upward. They picture themselves balancing a tray on their palms, rubbing the bottom of the tray by quickly shifting their flat palms side to side.

The movement will eventually become natural to them. This is important, because someday they’ll be doing the same thing in front of a crowd. Except then, there will be no tray, the swimmer will be upside down and underwater, and that movement will be all that’s keeping them afloat as they extend their legs above water to the beat of the music pumping through the pool.

With that, they’ll have learned “sculling,” one of the first techniques a newcomer will master as part of the College of William and Mary synchronized swimming team.

“You have to be able to swim, and honestly, that’s it,” team member Sarah Miner ’19 said. “Please just know how to swim. We’ll teach you everything else.”

Miner, in addition to Claire Flynn ’18, Cassie Chang ’19, ChiChi Ugochukwu ’20 and  Yulia Buynova ’19, who is currently off the performance circuit due to injury, comprise the College’s synchronized swimming team. Some, like Flynn and Ugochukwu, had no experience with synchro prior to college and were drawn in by the freshman activities fair.

“College is the time for experimenting,” Miner said. “So why not experiment with synchro?”

On the other hand, some, like Miner and Chang, have been doing synchro for years. But however they got here, all of them have been brought together by a sport, as Buynova described it, that is completely different from anything else.

“I know being new to the sport there were a lot of days where it was really frustrating to not understand how to do things,” Ugochukwu said. “There’s definitely things you want to do, and you just can’t do it … That’s in a lot of sports, but with something so new, something so different, it’s a new experience.”

The team spends the fall semester working on improving individual skills by practicing “figures,” which are individual movements that, when combined, make up a synchronized swimming routine. Miner compared this process to a gymnast rehearsing cartwheels to perfection. The fall semester caps off with a figures competition. In the spring, the real fun begins. The team travels across the country, competing everywhere from Florida to Arizona as its members work on the team, individual and partner routines they’ve been perfecting.

The first step in organizing these routines is selecting the music.

“We like to pick songs that the audience will know and get involved in,” Flynn said.

Once that’s done, the choreography comes next. Choreographing a show, as a team or individually, involves what swimmers call “land drilling,” or mimicking underwater movements on land. For upside-down parts of the routine, the choreographers use their arms to symbolize the movement of hips all the way down to the toes. For full-body spins, finger snaps suffice. They find choreography inspiration in everything from YouTube videos to professional competitions. Then, of course, comes actually transferring those moves to the pool.

“There are always changes made from the choreography that we make on land; and then once we put [it] in the water we realize we didn’t have enough to get here, or ‘this arm just looks really bad,’” Flynn said.

“Or that it’s literally impossible,” Miner added.

That choreography results in everything from incredible individual moves — a “split rocket” is when a swimmer shoots their body upward and does the splits before coming back down — to cadenced team movements — “cadenced ballet legs” involve the team members lining up and then staggering their movements to make a mesmerizing pattern, like a string of dominos toppling into the pool — to doubles routines — a “connect” involves two upside-down swimmers using their knees and lower legs to grip on to the other person’s hips.

All of this has to be done in an itchy sequined suit, with unflavored gelatin shellacked through their hair. The swimmers have to hold a smile every time they rise above the surface. They have to keep their eyes wide open underwater. And, of course, all of this must be accomplished without ever touching the bottom of the pool. But wowing the audience makes all of it worth it.

“I love when the judges will smile at me when I do a shoulder roll or a sassy wink or something,” Miner said. “People will laugh, and I think it’s so fun to connect with the audience that way.”

At meets, the team is judged in three categories: execution, artistic impression and difficulty. An elite-level overall score usually averages in the 80s. At the collegiate level, teams of any level of proficiency can travel and compete. Under the direction of head coach Barbara McNamee, the College team has been traveling regularly to the national-level competition. There, the team members get to see some of the best synchronized swimming in the country, as well as show off their own love for the sport.

“There’s a big emphasis in collegiate synchro on just growing the sport and getting as many people as possible involved in synchro,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot of different levels here, but they’re just so glad that everyone, regardless of their level, is just here and doing the sport.”

This team is an expert in crowd-pleasing routines. This year’s production at nationals was Indiana Jones themed, and the big finish involved swimmers rising up from the water to tip their imaginary hats at the audience.

“We’re not there to win nationals,” Miner said. “We’re there to do synchronized swimming, and we’re there because we love it.”