By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
KIRKLAND — There comes a moment underwater when discomfort turns to pain and then to near-panic. And the brain, which would normally be telling the athlete, “Turn your torso this way, move your arm this way, kick your leg this way,” is instead screaming: “Air! Gotta have air!”
But then, moments later, when the swimmer’s head bobs back to the surface and the instinct is to open wide, filling the lungs with precious oxygen, a little corner of that by now slightly benumbed brain is also whispering, “Don’t forget to smile.”
This is synchronized swimming, a sport that combines beauty and grace along with elements of self-torture. In competition, the idea is to do many difficult things, often simultaneously, and yet somehow make the whole performance seem elegant, even effortless.
These athletes are, for starters, outstanding swimmers. In addition, they employ techniques of dance and gymnastics, and they do it all while holding their breath under water or with radiant smiles above it.
“It combines a lot of different genres of sports, and I think that’s probably its appeal,” said Julie Abel, head coach of the Seattle Synchronized Swim Team. “If you’re a girl that has athletic ability and desires to do something on the theatrical side, this could be a combination that works.”
Shelby McDaniel, an 18-year-old senior at Langley’s South Whidbey High School, started out as a speed swimmer who first tried synchronized swimming as an eighth grader living in Las Vegas. She found it peculiar at first, but within a week she was hooked.
“It was really artistic, which was something I really liked about it,” she said. “And it was just really different from any sport I’d ever seen.”
Sofia Drogomiretskiy, of Brier, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Brier Terrace Middle School, also began lap swimming as a young girl. But she followed an older sister into synchronized swimming and now, she said, “it’s my passion.”
Because synchronized swimming events are scored by judges, appearances count. Shorter, heavier girls can certainly compete, but it helps to have “a long, lean, ballerina-style body,” Abel said. “When you’re upside down (with your head under the water), you want that length to be showing out of the water. So someone with pretty, extended legs will definitely have an advantage.”
Likewise, top synchronized swimmers have what theater folks would call a stage presence. They command the attention of the audience and, of course, the judges.
“I think the performing part is the most difficult thing to teach (to young swimmers),” Abel said, “because the girls either have it or they don’t. They can improve, but you can tell if a person naturally loves to perform. It’s internal, and you can see it even in very little kids. You know darn well they like what they’re doing.”
Abel’s daughter Brooke was a member of the 2008 United States Olympic synchronized swimming team — in Beijing, the Americans placed fifth in the eight-woman team competition — and “she was kind of a shy, quiet kid (as a younger girl). But the first time my husband and I saw her perform we asked ourselves, ‘Where did that came from?’ Eyes (of spectators) just went to her in a group when she was performing.”
“Presentation is a big part of your score,” said McDaniel, who has a synchronized swimming scholarship to attend Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., in the fall. “If the music is upbeat and happy, you’ll usually be smiling and really animated with your face. But if you do heavier, darker music, you really try to do intense, serious faces. You’re basically supposed to be acting out while you’re swimming.”
Here’s something else unique about the sport. Though we live in a gender-equity era with girls showing up on football and wrestling teams, boys are not asking to be synchronized swimmers.
It is, Abel acknowledged, “a girly sport. You wear makeup and beautiful suits. You use music. And there’s the emotional (aspect). It’s pretty, and that’s probably what makes it girly.”
OK, so it’s girly. But no way is it wimpy. Even slender girls who are strong swimmers with expressive faces have to stay underwater for prolonged periods, and that’s not easy. Those times vary, depending on the age group, but experienced girls can be under for a half-minute or more, and doing strenuous things the whole time. Lungs ache and sometimes, McDaniel said, “you start to see the stars.”
The breath-holding issue “is probably the hardest thing for kids to get past,” Abel said. “You just have to realize that it’s going to hurt your chest and you’re going to feel uncomfortable. But we talk them through it. We say, ‘You’re going to be OK. If you can get past (this discomfort), air is coming.’”
McDaniel, who hopes to be on the U.S. national team someday, admits that holding her breath “is one of my weaknesses. But I keep working on it every day with my endurance training, It’s gotten a lot better, but it was definitely one of the harder things when I first started.”
“I’ve learned to appreciate air very much,” agreed Drogomiretskiy with a laugh.
Like McDaniel, Drogomiretskiy wants to be a U.S. national team member in a few years. In the meantime, she hopes to earn a spot on a junior national team this summer.
Synchronized swimming is a high-pressure sport, she said, “and that’s the part I dislike, the nerves and the stress. I get very nervous at meets. But when you’re in the water doing it, it feels really good.”
Shelby McDaniel, 18, of Langley, fixes her goggles during the Seattle Synchronized Swimming Club practice Wednesday afternoon at Juanita High School in Kirkland. McDaniel, who is graduating from High School in June, is attending Lindenwood University in Missouri on a synchronized swimming scholarship in the fall.
Sofia Drogomiretskiy, 14, of Brier, listens to her coach, Aleksandra Lazovic, give her feedback on her solo routine at the Seattle Synchronized Swimming Club practice Wednesday afternoon at Juanita High School in Kirkland.
Sofia Drogomiretskiy, 14, of Brier, practices her solo routine at the Seattle Synchronized Swimming Club practice Wednesday afternoon at Juanita High School in Kirkland. Drogomiretskiy has been synchronized swimming for 7 years.
The 16-18 year-old team of the Seattle Synchronized Swimming Club practice Wednesday afternoon at Juanita High School in Kirkland.
Shelby McDaniel, 18, of Langley, listens to her coach during the Seattle Synchronized Swimming Club practice Wednesday afternoon at Juanita High School in Kirkland. McDaniel, who is graduating from High School in June, is attending Lindenwood University in Missouri on a synchronized swimming scholarship in the fall.