I expected more glitter. Recollections of Olympic watching brought up images of sparkly synchronized swimmers, yet I knew full well the sport involved more than just glitter, sequins and heavy eye makeup. And I was pretty excited to check out the elite level of the sport in person as the U.S. Collegiate Synchronized Swimming Nationals were in the region this weekend.
Upon entering the Town of Tonawanda Aquatic Center, the buzz felt like any other swim meet with swarming parents and friends and swimmers walking around in various stages of pool-wear to procure late morning snacks.
I had arrived for the solo and team events, watching the athletes take an hour’s worth of warmups. They wore swim caps and goggles as they practiced, taking both off later for their competition routines. Goggles, I found out later via an Internet search, are not permitted in competition. Nose clips are. Gelatin is used to slick hair back in a tight bun and swimsuits are tailored to the theme of the performance.
Yes, I was trying to cram synchro 101 into a few hours on a Saturday.
To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I was watching. Scores were given for technical merit and artistic interpretation (much like figure skating) and the nuances were lost on me. Judges looked for things like flexibility, height on moves where swimmers come out of the water, strength and creativity of formations. And while I may not have known the particulars, there still was plenty of jaw-dropping on my part. You don’t need to know the jargon to offer a “wow” when a team lifts and launches a swimmer, who then performs her own stunt on the way down, only to have her emerge, in unison with her teammates, in a perfect circle.
My focus for the day was on the Canisius College team, the local team which had historically done well in the national event.
This year, freshman Svetlana Ponkratove took third in the solo even while Canisius finished sixth in the team event and fourth in the overall points standings. (The difference between the “team” event and the “points winner” was a subtly of scoring I didn’t fully grasp until after I had left the competition.) The Golden Griffins performed their team routine to Celtic music, which not only got the hometown fans involved, but was high energy and spirited and just cool to watch.
I came to the event with an open mind and left even more impressed than I expected to be. What won me over? The high energy, certainly. The welcoming attitude of everyone on the pool deck helped lure me in. And, for me, there’s nothing better, or more inspiring, than watching athletes comfortable with contradictions.
In some ways, synchronized swimming is a “traditional” women’s sport in that there is an aesthetic emphasis. But wearing glitter and having incredible physical strength aren’t mutually exclusive. And while I have no knowledge of the specific techniques necessary, my experience in swimming gives me a pretty good idea of the degree of difficulty. Seriously, I can not do a basic flip turn during adult rec swim and if I don’t breathe on every stroke, panic sets in. How these synchro athletes perform gymnastics in the water, with strength and speed coupled with necessary panache and grace, is awe inspiring. I kicked myself later for failing to capture video or photos of the event, but observing the continual parade of athletes and taking in the atmosphere kept my mind preoccupied.
In researching my master’s thesis on femininity and athleticism, I spent a good deal of time around competitive cheerleaders and reading popular media accounts against traditional “female” sports — like gymnastics, figure skating and synchronized swimming. For some, the contradiction of strong athletes wearing sequins and makeup blurs the sporting line.
For me, it’s freaking fantastic.
It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, where he writes:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We all have the capacity for contradiction, because we all contain vast multitudes. But only those of us who celebrate the contradictions, instead of trying to reconcile them, truly live fully.