In the diving pool of Arlington County’s Wakefield Aquatics Center on a sunny Sunday in April, a teenage girl shot out from atop an underwater human pyramid in a perfect backward arc. Several feet away, on the pool deck, four younger girls swiveled their arms through the air in unison to eight-count beats as music boomed from a nearby speaker.
The swimmers are members of NoVa Synchro, the Northern Virginia Synchronized Swim Team. During practices — up to three times a week, three hours per practice for the team’s most advanced swimmers, or seniors — the athletes run through 30 minutes of stretches on land before practicing drills tailored to the sport in the water.
Those exercises include “egg beatering,” or treading water by moving each leg in the opposite direction like an egg beater, which allows a swimmer to hold her body afloat; and “unders,” swimming the length of the pool while holding your breath, which builds the stamina required for synchronized swim, or synchro, routines.
Kick boards with laminated instructions float alongside the swimmers to help them learn their routines. Underwater microphones allow coaches to instruct the swimmers while they’re underwater and to play the music that accompanies the routines.
Synchronized swimming had its beginnings in water ballet demonstrations in the late 1800s in Europe and has morphed into a sport that saw its debut at the Olympic games in 1984. The visual appeal of synchro’s choreographed routines, along with the makeup and headpieces donned by athletes in competition, have made the sport popular with spectators.
Swimmers say the sport is far more athletically demanding than most onlookers suspect.
“I think it’s frustrating as a coach when you know how hard these girls work day in day out, and among their peers they don’t get much respect for it,” said Marsea Nelson, the NoVa Synchro coach. “It’s even harder than ice skating or gymnastics, because you have to hold your breath during the performance. I think that’s an element no other sport has.”
“People see it as a performance sport,” said Olga Belogolova, another NoVa Synchro coach. “They don’t realize that under the water, they’re moving their legs so fast. When your body’s underwater, you have to tighten every muscle that allows you to float. It’s athletic, it’s artistic and you’ve got to be flexible. It takes a lot of athleticism to make something look effortless.”
The NoVa Synchro team, founded 10 years ago, participates in regional competitions and has seen swimmers qualify for Nationals each year. Last year, the team finished 18th out of 30 in their Age Group National Championships. Belogolova hopes to send qualifying swimmers to this year’s Nationals in Seattle.
Synchro swim team members are also in unison on one of the most dreaded aspects of competition, a requirement more aesthetic than athletic: “You have to paint hot gelatin into your hair when it’s in a bun,” said Cassie Block, 14, who has been a member of the team since she was in second grade. “That’s how we keep it waterproof.”
Along with sparkly suits, waterproof makeup and headpieces firmly affixed with bobby pins, swimmers apply the gelatin to their hair for every performance. Five packets of Knox gelatin per swimmer are dissolved in boiling water, mixed to the consistency of rubber cement, and painted on their hair. It leaves their hair rock-hard and impervious to water. After the contest, swimmers use water and pineapple juice to remove the foul-smelling mixture.
Cassie’s mother, Hildie Block, said her daughter’s experience on the team has had a positive effect on her, both personally and academically.
“After Cassie started swimming, everything just clicked. It’s been profound for her,” Block said, adding that swimming in deep water is calming for her daughter.
In synchro, each swimmer depends heavily on the others. That makes the team a close-knit group.
“Having to be synchronized with other kids is a level of teamwork that kids don’t experience in other sports,” Nelson said. “You have to have a lot of compromise so you look exactly like your teammate’s looking. It just creates a bond.”
Bettina Lanyi is a freelance writer.