No Room for Mermaids in Synchronized Swimming

Synchronized swimming is leagues beyond the sort of bathing beauty spectacle that many associate with Esther Williams. A day spent with the U.S. team in Walnut Creek, Calif., shows why the rigorous Olympic sport is better described as underwater gymnastics.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Ari Shapiro.

As part of NPR's series on American athletes preparing for the Summer Olympics, we're going to take a look at synchronized swimming. This sport has been through a lot changes in recent decades. It's no longer Esther Williams water ballet. Today it's more like underwater, upside down gymnastics.

Reporter April Dembosky spent a day with the U.S. synchronized swimming team to see how they're getting ready for Beijing.

APRIL DEMBOSKY: Walnut Creek, California, is considered the mecca of synchronizes swimming. This is where young girls come when they want to get serious about the sport. The San Francisco suburb is also home to the U.S. Olympic team. Tammy McGregor is the head coach. She says the sport has really changed.

Ms. TAMMY MCGREGOR (Head Coach, U.S. Synchronized Swimming Team): The sport used to have a lot of underwater, sustained moves, and now it's much more action-packed.

DEMBOSKY: Co-captain Kate Hooven agrees.

Ms. KATE HOOVEN (Co-Captain, U.S. Synchronized Swimming Team): Now it's just speed, speed, precision. It's just way faster.

DEMBOSKY: Keeping up with the competition requires rigorous training.

(Soundbite of splashing)

DEMBOSKY: The team arrives at the pool by 9 a.m. They wear swim caps and bikinis. Their bodies are sleek and smothered with sunscreen, and their faces are white from a thick layer of zinc oxide. They warm up with an hour of laps, then they spend the next five pounding out the routine.

Ms. MCGREGOR: ...five, six, seven, eight; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight; one, two, three, four, five. All right. That's good.

DEMBOSKY: They never get out of the water, even to eat. Instead, they snack on apples, granola bars, even burritos by the side of the pool.

Unidentified Woman #1: There's no such thing as wait 30 minutes before you swim.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible). It feels like a little bit of a gourmet treat on the side of the pool.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, it does.

DEMBOSKY: They rehearse one move over and over called a lift. Seven women form an underwater pyramid. The group pushes the woman on top two feet above water. She's midair for a split second. She strikes a pose then falls back to the water.

Ms. JANET CULP (Member, U.S. Synchronized Swimming Team): I'm Janet Culp. I'm that person who's out of the water doing the tricks that people see.

DEMBOSKY: Culp trains twice a week at the San Francisco Circus Center. She gets strapped into a harness so she can practice jumps and twists without belly flopping.

Ms. CULP: You get thrown around a lot. Sometimes you land on your teammates or sometimes you don't land in the water like you expect, so it definitely can be painful, for sure.

DEMBOSKY: The U.S. team is currently ranked fourth in the world. Coach McGregor says Russia is first.

Ms. MCGREGOR: With the Russians, their lifts and throws are very high. They also have very action-packed routines. They swim very fast and very close. So that's something we're trying to do.

DEMBOSKY: The U.S. will also focus on what it does best: choreography. Coach McGregor says the team works with a professional choreographer from France.

Ms. MCGREGOR: He usually has an idea and music and concepts but, you know, the girls really come up with the specific moves. So, it's really a relationship between coach and athlete.

DEMBOSKY: Sometimes they want a spectator's opinion, so they ask lifeguard Joey David.

Mr. JOEY DAVID (Lifeguard): All of a sudden a head will pop out of the nut shack after they've done their routine and they go, hey, Joey, what'd you think of that? I give them two thumbs up most of the time or, you know, I'll give them the truth. It's got to pass my test before it goes to China.

DEMBOSKY: Every move must be perfectly matched. Even the breathing is choreographed.

Mr. DUKE ZIELINSKI (Coach, U.S. Synchronized Swimming Team): All right. Let's do this...

DEMBOSKY: Coach Duke Zielinski directs the exercise on land.

Mr. ZIELINSKI: Just kind of keep a mental note, as we're going through this, where your breath is.

DEMBOSKY: This is the last exercise of the afternoon, and the team does it for an hour. Then at 3:30, they call it a day.

Mr. ZIELINSKI: Hands in the middle. Let's break on - what's the word of the day?

Unidentified Woman #3: Breathe.

Mr. ZIELINSKI: On three.

Unidentified Woman #4: Breathe.

DEMBOSKY: The training regimen repeats six days a week, eight hours a day. Right now the team is fourth in the world, but in Beijing, they're hoping for a spot on the podium.

For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.

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