Sync or Swim

By Kara Myers – May 14, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

The mention of synchronized swimming typically conjures one of two things: Esther Williams movies or the send-up Martin Short and Christopher Guest immortalized on Saturday Night Live. But Austin boasts a synchronized swim team that competes on the regional and national stages.

Most every Sunday evening, the Town Lake YMCA pool is home to the Austin Angelfish, a team of girls ages 8 to 18. As often as four times a week, they train for a demanding sport that is all grace and smiles above the water, and all power and athleticism beneath the surface.

“Synchronized swimming encompasses the entire body,” said Cheryl Cook, head coac h of the Austin Angelfish. “It requires the flexibility and power of a gymnast, the grace of a dancer, the cardiovascular endurance of a runner, the control of a martial artist, and the speed of a skater, all while balancing upside down, twirling your legs and trying to stay in a tightly synchronized formation like a marching band. On top of it all you have to smile and make it look easy!”

According to the documentary Sync or Swim, the U.S. Olympic Synchronized Swimming Team trains eight hours a day, six days a week. This includes swim training and choreography, gymnastics, weight training, plyometrics, dance classes, aerobic and anaerobic training, and running. The Angelfish train for fewer hours, but with similar rigor.

Synchronized swimmers tread water throughout their entire routines and receive a two-point penalty deduction for making deliberate use of the pool bottom during their routine in competition.

At the beginning of the routine, synchronzied swimmers are allowed up to ten seconds of deckwork to set the mood for their swim. While the routines are carefully choreographed to a count and the swimmers practice by counting, they also must hear the music underwater. Usually a speaker is hung approximately one meter below the surface for this purpose. Some teams use the underwater speaker during practice for coaches to give feedback.

In addition to their choreographed routines, athletes are required to perform individual technical skills in front of a panel of judges that apply a standard scoring system (also used in the Olympics) to rate how well the swimmer demonstrates strength, flexibility, and control.

In terms of equipment, swimmers would tell you the nose clip is the most important. Serving the sole purpose of keeping water out of the swimmer’s nose during routines, which include a lot of upside down formations requiring swimmers to hold their breath for up to a minute at a time, the nose clip’s role cannot be underestimated. Many swimmers carry spares inside their suits in case the original is dislodged during the swim. In a recent Angelfish competition, one swimmer even slipped a replacement nose clip to a teammate during a routine!

For competition and water shows, synchronized swimmers do not use swim caps. Rather, Knox gelatin is brushed on or combed into their hair, like paste, to keep it out of their faces and to have a more uniform look (it can be washed out with hot water—and lots of conditioner). Most competition swimsuits, especially at the elite level, are handmade. But even the Austin Angelfish and other age-group teams have suits with hand-sewn beads and sequins.

For competition and shows, swimmers use waterproof makeup and wear headpieces which often have beads and sequins to match the suits. The headpieces create both a uniform appearance among team members with varying hair colors and styles, as well as adding to the sparkle of the competition suits. Like figure skating, synchronized swimming is a performance sport, where smiles, glittery costumes, and showmanship while performing to music are combined with strength and athleticism. While there are a few boys who compete, there are no college programs for boys and there are no males at this time on the Angelfish team. There are more men at the masters level of synchronized swimming.

FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation) is the worldwide governing body for all water sports, including speed swimming, water polo, diving, synchronized swimming, open water, and masters programs. USA Synchro governs all synchronized swimming in the United States and must follow the rules and guidelines specified by FINA.

According to USA Synchro, there are five colleges with varsity synchronized swimming teams, including Canisius College, Lindenwood, Stanford University, Ohio State University, and Wheaton College. Twenty-one colleges and universities have club programs, and three colleges have show programs.

Regionally, the Angelfish compete against teams from San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. Only the top three routines from each category qualify to compete at nationals. Once there, the Angelfish face competition from more than 50 other teams from around the country.

The Angelfish are currently in the midst of their competitive season, aiming for the national competition in Oxford, Ohio at the end of June. Typically, the Angelfish qualify to compete at nationals in various age groups of 11-12, 13-15, 16-17, and 18-19 in solo, duet, trio, and team routines.

Emily Heubaum, a 14-year-old who is in her sixth year with the Angelfish, is an example of what swimmers can accomplish with a little dedication to health and fitness. When she started swimming at age 8, Emily could barely swim the length of the pool and used to get stomachaches when she swam. Once she improved her diet, the stomachaches disappeared and her swimming skills improved dramatically. Today, Emily is one of the top athletes with the Angelfish.

“I can’t eat much sugar any more,” said Emily. “I’ve adjusted to eating better quality food since it allows me to have a better workout.”

Austin Angelfish Watershow is May 19, 7:30 p.m. at the Town Lake Y; the event is free and open to the public.

Angelfish Facts:
• Swimmers range in age from 8 to 18
• Competition season runs January to June
• Practice at Town Lake Y on Saturdays & Sundays, at JCC on Tuesdays and Thursdays; • Beginner class at Town Lake Y on Sundays @ 4:30pm
• Teams in the Association: Austin Angelfish, Cygnets of San Antonio
• Teams in the Region: Austin Angelfish, Cygnets of San Antonio, First Colony SynchroStars (Houston), Pirouettes of Texas (Irving), West Houston Bluebonnettes
• States in the Zone: Texas, Florida, Virginia, DC, Maryland

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