Appearing effortless often requires the superior effort. In the world of synchronized swimming, the illusion of ease masks the sheer amount of work required for the sport.
At a glance, one typically sees poised young women gracefully completing simultaneous movements in water and since its inception, synchro has often been portrayed in a very whimsical light, from Miss Piggy giving it a go in The Great Muppet Caper, to the flower bonnet-adorned background swimmers in the opening sequence to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me who were, more than anything else, cute set-pieces with movement. Behind those polished smiles and matching swimsuits, however, lay hardened athletes at peak physical condition who have spent years training for perfection and artistry in a sport that prides itself on looking easy.
"We could beat any hockey boy at a fitness endurance test," says University of Calgary synchronized swimming club member Kerry Atkins. "In terms of sport, you have your cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and endurance. It's every single sport combined, plus no oxygen."
Synchro typically consists of combinations of different elements that represent the many techniques of the sport. Figures consist of movements that put a swimmer's head under water, such as lifting the legs in to the air, while strokes represent movements done with the head above the water. Figures and strokes interact and lead towards highlights, which, as suggested by the name, consist of audience-appealing movement like lifting a swimmer into the air or throws.
Going into competition, teams are judged with an artistic mark and a technical mark. In regards to technicality, judges often reward groups who do more figures as they are more difficult to do, given that the swimmers are submerged, as well as movements that require more physical skill, like lifting both of one's arms up as opposed to just one.
"You use all these different things and pattern changes, slow movements, fast movements to make things interesting," says Laurel Alexander, coach of U of C synchro. "The faster you move, the harder it is because it's hard to synchronize the team together."
The sport emerged in 1905 in the form of underwater ballet and, through melding higher athleticism with the original artistic origins, slowly transformed into a team activity. The activity made a strong move to breaking into mainstream sightlines when it became a demonstration sport at the 1952 Olympics and eventually gained full competitive event status in 1984.
Closer to home, the U of C synchronized swimming club has created a niche for those in the synchro world who want to find the middle ground between the high school level and national and Olympic competition. Formed in 2006, the club has made an obvious splash in the Canadian university synchronized swimming world. The group garnered unexpected success, claiming the bronze medal while competing in their first-ever national competition at Waterloo University on Feb. 10, 2007. They came back the following year to initially tie for first with the defending champions, McGill University, only to end on the second-place podium after technical scores served as the competition's tie-breaker. With the group so close to complete victory at such an early stage in their creation, all eyes are on the rookies and their impressive accomplishments.
"When we swam last year, I don't think [the other teams] knew what to expect, like it was this mess of people coming together and making a club for the first year," says Atkins. "I think we kind of shocked and surprised a lot of people."
The club draws its membership from different facets of the Calgary synchro swimming community, including groups like the Aquabelles and the Calgary Winter Club. Each member has spent years perfecting their technique and building their knowledge on the sport while dealing with the realities of the activity and the restrictions put on wanting to continue on in the synchronized swimming world.
"With so many sports, you can do those at the intramural level," says Shannon Benson, a U of C synchro member. "Because synchro's so technical and involved, with such structured training, it's really hard to do it at a recreational level. Synchro's such a unique sport, so you need all of us to be in the water at the same time and you can't just have an off day. Dedication to what we're doing and passion for wanting to pursue excellence [is important]."
The nature of the sport also makes gaining coverage a challenge for the group.
"I also think it's hard for the media to cover it because there aren't a lot of events," says Benson. "It's not like we have tournaments every weekend. But that's what makes the sport so unique. You train for 30-hours-plus a week and then you have three minutes that you perform your routine three times a year."
That commitment and drive has pushed the team towards their laurels, despite being such a young group in the synchronized swimming world. Currently, they are a students' union sanctioned club and applied for a travel grant to make going to nationals possible. The group hopes to eventually gain competitive club status from campus recreation, which will help them garner much-needed pool time at the U of C Aquatic Centre as well as become more of a staple on campus. With this increased support, the team will have the reinforcement to continue being a serious contender at the national varsity level.
"[We want] to become more visible within the campus community and attract more members and to be viewed as an competitive athletic team, as opposed to just a social club or a recreational club," Benson says. "We know that it's hard to get pool time at the U of C, so we felt like we had to establish ourselves and I think our results clearly speak to the fact that we're dedicated to this team's continued success."
Increased recognition of the group will also give some well-deserved support to the group, who credits their understanding of team dynamics and the infective nature of synchro on its members. Though their competitive aspirations remain, the U of C club has given some of the girls a chance to remember why they loved the sport in the first place.
"I was on the national team for four years and went to two junior worlds and we placed second and third in 2002," says Atkins. "I didn't want to go back to competing and I didn't want to perform as a career, so this was a good balance for me to find some way to be involved and not have to sacrifice everything else in my life."
Atkins adds that she was originally reluctant to join the group because of past experiences.
"When you get to such a high competitive level, it's not about fun anymore or enjoying anything and that's what I kind of associated synchro with, so I didn't want to get involved with that at all," she says. "Once I got into it [here], I realized it wasn't like that at all and it kind of made me realize why I started swimming and why I stuck with it for 15 years."
Having next year in mind, the group hopes to host a competition at the university, bringing in teams from other schools in Canada and the U.S. and something to U of C that students can get interested in watching and being a part of. With their already plentiful triumphs, they can hopefully look forward to seeing the U of C name in gold and on championship banners.
"We're definitely the threat from the west," says Benson.