Going Under

Can synchronized swimming in the U.S. keep its head above water?
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Synchro has been around in one form since the first half of the 20th century

Photo courtest of UWDigitalCollections and Flickr. 

There is a YouTube video of synchronized swimmer Mary Killman performing what is called a Rocket maneuver to the song “Johnny B. Goode” as part of her final solo at the 2011 synchronized swimming World Championships in Shanghai. Killman, who will compete in this summer’s Olympics, says it is one of her favorite figures, and she can do some of the highest Rocket maneuvers worldwide. Submerged, laying on her back, with her legs held straight above her she forms a perfect floating right angle. Gracefully she moves towards the surface, almost like an illusion as if something or someone is pushing her up from below. Suddenly she bursts legs first, kicking high up and out of the water, flips over and emerges again arm raised like she is now being pulled up from above.

Synchronized swimming, or synchro, as it is often called, is a unique, beautiful hybrid form of swimming, dance and gymnastics. Swimmers are often vertical and upside down with their legs above the surface, performing spins, splits and other movements all which require exceptional strength, flexibility and breath control. Swimmers are not permitted to touch the bottom of the pool and using arm motions (“sculling”) and leg kicking (“eggbeaters”), depend completely on their own strength and stamina to stay afloat. The choreographed routines swimmers perform are composed of complex leg movements and arm strokes that incorporate an elaborate series of lifts and throws.

Accompanied by music, the figures and maneuvers performed above and underwater combine split-second timing, precision and grace. The music and its interpretation is an amalgam of artistic expression and sheer athleticism. Because half of what happens in synchronized swimming is done underwater, the audience is blind to the much of the mechanics used by and the strength of the athletes. That, combined with their smiling faces has led many to conclude that the sport requires little of either. During a particularly aerobic four minute routine, a synchronized swimmer may spend more than a minute underwater without coming up for air and more than two and one half minutes cumulative underwater.

Killman says her teammates use the expression “fake it till you make it” to describe the effort to push past the urge to breathe. “You are underwater and you feel like you are going to pass out, your muscles are tired aching all you want to do is lay on your back but you have to come up and perform. With a big smile on your face…That’s part of the sport. That’s what you have to do. The easier you make it look the better you are doing.”

***

After more than half a century of tireless advocacy from pioneering coaches and swimmers, the sport of synchronized swimming formerly known as water ballet, officially debuted at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Fifty women from 21 countries competed, with Esther Williams- the indelible synchro pop-culture icon, providing the televised commentary.

It was the United States that originally dominated synchronized swimming and during the first three Olympiads the US Team along with Canada won all the gold Olympic medals awarded in the sport. But in 2000, Russia won gold medals in both the duet and team competitions,and the US none. In 2004 the US came back to win bronze medals in both the duet and team competition but since 2000 it is Russia that has won every gold. This year with eight team spots available (and one of those reserved for the host country) the US team did not qualify to compete.

“Usually it’s like every four years synchro is this huge thing because of the Olympics,” says Cheryl Furjanic, who directed and produced the documentary film, Sync or Swim, the story of the U.S. synchronized swimming team’s journey to the 2004 Olympics, “I think that it’s going to be a little bit of a difficult thing for the U.S. to come back from. Just in terms of keeping their numbers up and keeping the interest and the visibility going.”

Today Mary Killman and her duet team partner Mariya Koroleva make up the United States great wet hope for Olympic synchronized swimming success. This summer in London, the U.S. synchronized swimming duet team will compete along with twenty-four other pairings from around the world but for the first time since 2000, the United States synchronized swimming team will not. For an Olympic sport that is relatively new and has struggled for decades to gain recognition, synchronized swimming in the United States now appears to be in danger of going under.

The reasons behind United States inability to qualify for the Olympic team competition are not just issues with athletic ability but with the changing aesthetic of the sport overall, which increasingly placed value upon and emphasized its athletic and gymnastic side and less so its artistic impression- the component of judging a routine that includes choreography, interpretation of music and presentation. This, combined with fewer girls coming up in the sport and the seemingly irreversible dominance of the Russians, has created a perfect storm that could sink the sport in the U.S.

“We are still out there performing with huge smiles on our faces, and we have sequins and glitter,” says Killman, “but it’s gotten a lot faster. It’s gotten more -how fast can you do this and still be just as high or how high can you throw someone out of the water and how acrobatic can they look?”

Mary Killman says she considers herself more of an athlete than a performer, but her favorite part of the sport remains the choreography. “I like the choreography phase of everything. When you first get the music and it’s raw. All you have is a piece of music, and you have to sit there in the water and go okay, what does this sound like? Does this sound like a spin, does it sound like a really high rocket, flexibility, like a crash? Does this feel like a lift?” Synchro swimmers also must make their routines look effortless. “Compared to a track athlete,” Killman says, “who is running as hard as they can and you see the sweat pouring down their face at the end of it- we have to do the same thing, but we have to hold our breath.”

“They have gone too far telling everyone how difficult it is,” says Dawn Bean, who wrote a book on the history of synchronized swimming, served on the U.S. Olympic Committee for twelve years and now, well into her 80’s, still coaches synchro masters teams. The shift in aesthetic away from artistic expression and much more towards that of athleticism has left sychnro she says with “… too many thrashing legs and feet above water.”

Bean is not the only prominent figure in synchro's storied history that has noticed the shift towards athleticism. “Everything now is fast,” says Chris Carver who began coaching in 1960 and has coached three U.S. synchro Olympic teams. She recounts the negative reactions of the judges just weeks ago at a national competition. “I sat with the judges and they were saying, ‘this is frantic. It’s built up to such a frantic pace, I don’t enjoy it and I almost can’t judge it’.” Carver gives the example of Spain recently performing a technical duet that was very artistic and with a wide range of motion. “People said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before’. “Well they have seen something like this before, just not in their time. We (the U.S.) were more like that.”

“I would hope that there is room for all of these incarnations of what synchronized swimming is or can be,” says filmmaker Furjanic, I do think it’s an open-ended question, and I don’t know that it can be answered. I would hate to see it answered by its disappearance.”

***

For some observers, the outward appearance of a synchro swimmer suggests spectacle- with their helmeted hair secured tightly back with gelatin, sporting shimmering, bright sequined suits, flashing their legs and turning like a cork screw around and upside down in the water. But the performance of synchro swimmers as a duet or team is dedicated to both unity of movement and precise athletic maneuvers. For the duration of a routine, the viewing audience is not intended to focus solely on an individual athlete or a particular maneuver but to experience the swimmers collectively, as a whole creating synchronicity, as the name implies. Water is the medium and setting for the harmony of a precisely choreographed expression of athleticism. Synchro unites the body with water in a way that is literally fluid but dramatic. As swimmers repeatedly fall back into and emerge from the water, sink down and explode upward with forceful, assertive strength and rhythm, the element of water serves to hold, shelter and rebirth them. The combined athleticism and artistry that make up synchro was in the past amplified by water and today often appears to be constrained by it.

Russia raised the bar of competition by incorporating new hybrid figures. Forms and higher lifts were combined with speed that no one knew was possible. Anna Kozlova, a former synchronized swimmer who defected to the United States from Russia in 1993, competed in three Olympic Games and won two bronze medals for the U.S, says she was sad but not surprised when the United States team didn’t qualify. She recalls that in the early days, the rule was “be careful not to splash the water.” “But now,” she continues, “it’s definitely gone the other way. It doesn’t bother me that it’s more athletic; it bothers me that everyone tries to be like the Russians, or their style, but don’t do as good as job, so it ends up just being a lot of really badly copied routines.” She believes that a big part of the problem now is a lack of willingness on the part of young athletes to commit to the rigors of Olympic training to the exclusion of everything else in their lives, including a college education. “Most girls are going to choose education over the Olympics. It is almost impossible to get ready for the Olympics by training collegiately. It was hard to even get women to try out for the Olympic team this round. You have to be willing to train 8-10 hours a day in water and have no life.” Additionally she says coaches are constrained by parents who won’t allow negative feedback. Anna who now herself coaches, explains, “You can’t say they (children) didn’t do well. This is not the way you achieve excellence.”

“What people liked about American synchro and what went away was the American spirit,” says Carver. She sums up this spirit with the example of the movie Rocky IV, in which Sylvester Stallone is matched against a Russian twice his size. “The Russian competitor had all the training, all the strength, he was programmed, and he could do all these things. But Rocky had the heart.”

Chris predicts that U.S. synchro will improve by 2016, and “that by 2020 you will see the United States back in the game.” Part of the reason for her optimism is the quality of the U.S. coaches, many of whom she coached herself when they were Olympic athletes. She compares the young synchro swimmers coming up to child musicians who may be 24 before they play in a philharmonic orchestra. “It’s not a simple overnight fix, but I’m hopeful. There are those who love the sport, and they are not going to give up easily.”

Killman, who is the youngest member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Selection Team has been swimming synchro for almost half of her 21 years. As a little girl she held her breath underwater, swimming from one side of the pool to the other pretending to be the Little Mermaid.

From playing at being a mermaid to competing in the Olympics, next week Killman will officially go for gold. As soon as she and her duet partner Mariya Koroleva arrived in London they headed straight for the competition pool to practice and at night she blogs enthusiastically from her room in the Olympic Village .It is her positivity that perhaps best exemplifies the American spirit that Carver refers to. “People shouldn’t give up,” Killman says. “Things are going to be difficult. The path isn’t always going to be easy, but if you work it at, it will be worth it in the end.”


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For an Olympic sport that is relatively new and has struggled for decades to gain recognition, synchronized swimming in the United States now appears to be in danger of going under.
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