Water ballet it's not. With edgier moves, more physical demands and faster music, synchronized swimming has come a long way since the days Esther Williams wowed movie audiences with her graceful dives and perfectly timed strokes.
A combination of gymnastics, dance and swimming, synchronized swimming takes flexibility, strength, endurance, poise and a keen sense of timing, said Katie Nisbet, 17, a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High School.
"You take sports like gymnastics and cheerleading, but you take away the floor and ... hold your breath and you're still doing lifts and swimming and smiling, all at the same time," Nisbet said.
Nisbet is in her fifth year with Suncoast WaterWorks, Pinellas County's only synchro club.
Formed in 1985, the club consists of about 40 swimmers, ages 8 to 18, from throughout the Tampa Bay area. The team practices at Southwest Recreation Complex in Largo.
Before they start learning routines, the girls must practice holding their breath and work on basic moves such as the "eggbeater," a method of treading water also used by water polo players that allows them to maintain a certain height and keep their hands free to perform movements.
"It's one of the things you're constantly working on," said Elise Foreit, 17, of Crystal Beach.
Beyond mastering the challenging physical feats, the athletes need to have a serious devotion to their teammates, said coach Susan Comerford.
"The biggest thing is working with others, learning how to give and take, learning how to sometimes put yourself behind other people, to not always put yourself first," Comerford said.
That collaboration is a big draw, several swimmers said.
"It's the only sport where you really understand what it's like to work with a team because you rely heavily on each other," Nisbet said. "If anyone messes up, the whole team is penalized for it."
Several girls said performing a well-executed routine is a rush.
"I love the fact that when you're swimming, you get to tell a story with your body. It's kind of a unique sport and not everybody does it," said Anna Dunwoody, 13, of Seminole.
Some of the girls go on to swim for collegiate programs; others come back to Suncoast to share what they've learned with the next generation of synchro swimmers.
Andrea Patterson, 20, swam with the team for nine years before becoming a coach. "I was one of them, bobbing under the water, not listening, so I try to be patient," Patterson said of the newer members.
Comerford, 29, who is also a club alum, said the sport has changed a lot in the past decade.
"When I swam, it was a little bit slower, you held positions for longer. Now it's very fast. They're swimming very close together, making multiple pattern changes," Comerford said. "It's like anything. It's getting more technical."
Synchro through the 20th century
The history of synchronized swimming in the United States includes:
1907: Australian Annette Kellerman performs as the first underwater ballerina in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome.
1934: The Modern Mermaids perform synchronized swimming at the World's Fair in Chicago.
1940s:Esther Williams, right, and her movies help vault the sport to popularity in the United States.
1952: The U.S. and Canada demonstrate synchro at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
1984: Synchronized swimming for solos and duets premieres at the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles.
1996: Team event is added to the Olympic Games.
Source: USA Synchro
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