Synchronized swimmers scream at each other underwater, and they are sick and tired of hearing about Esther Williams. People don't realize these things about synchronized swimming.
In fact, a lot of people who don't know anything about synchronized swimming, and even some who do, feel that the sport could stand an injection of something. A man who ran into synchronized swimming in college one evening right after biology lab says that it inspired in him a great ambition. He had what amounted to a vision: some night when the lights went out for a climactic floating-torches-in-the-darkness number he would slip down to the side of the university pool and spike it so heavily with Gentian Violet, a dye used to stain slides in biology labs, that when the lights came back on, the girls would resurface purple.
But that would be gilding the lily. To be sure, such an idea may have occurred to some synchronized swimming team in earnest, and who knows that it won't be tried this weekend in the AAU indoor nationals. A sport that has seen, in recent years, the Shamrock Hilton Corkettes perform The Highest—a Religious Pilgrimage and the Newark Nereids in Thieves of Alli Baba—not to mention Sydonia Fisher and Linda Howerton of the Hayward (Calif.) Recreation Flying Fins in Roumania, Roumania—Soul of the People—is accustomed to bold effects. But traditionalists in the sport would frown on purple girls, and with reason. Anyone who has really looked into what is referred to as "the synchro picture"—certainly anyone who has become acquainted with Mrs. Margaret Swan and the San Antonio (Texas) Cygnets—knows that synchronized swimming has color enough already.
The Cygnets are 49 girls in all, ranging in age from 5 to 17. The Cygnets' A team—eight girls aged 13 to 17—is the third best in the country, behind the Santa Clara Aquamaids and the San Francisco Merionettes. Mrs. Swan, the team's coach and owner, has derived its name from her own (the Merionettes named themselves for their coach, Mrs. Marion Kane, changing a letter to work in the mermaid angle). There are other noteworthy team names: the Buffalo Swimkins, the Kansas City Sea Sprites, the Minneapolis Fairview Synkers, the Paso Robles Roblettes, the Oakland Moose (Club) Naiads, the Walnut Creek Aquanuts, the Town of Tonawanda (N.Y.) Aquettes, the (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio) Waterworks Flippers and the Garland (Texas) Park and Recreation Department Garlettes.
Mrs. Swan lives in—and trains the Cygnets in a yellow-and-white-striped plastic bubble adjacent to—a haunted house. The ghost in this house has a penchant for tucking in beds. Jo Clare Oliverio, 14, who is in her ninth year under Mrs. Swan, once spent the night in this house with another Cygnet and no one else. "We got up in the morning and left the bed all yuck," she recalls, "and went into the kitchen and fixed ourselves breakfast. When we went back we looked at the bed. It was all made up." Mrs. Swan has psychic friends who tell her that when they enter the house they "think 'strangled.' They have a sense of someone being strangled in this house."
But that is a side matter; synchronized swimming is eerie in its own right. Its practitioners can walk on subsurface water. That is, while holding their arms entirely out of the water and upraised in a series of graceful attitudes, they appear for all the world to be walking smoothly across the bottom of the pool through water that comes up only to their rib cages, when in fact they are suspended in water 10 feet deep. They are keeping themselves unbobbingly afloat and processional, with several feet of water between their feet and the bottom, by means of a feverish activity from the knees down known as "the eggbeater kick." Can Don Schollander do that? Can Bear Bryant?
The eggbeater kick, which is like the goalie's kick in water polo, has in recent years played a larger and larger role in synchronized swimming. Before it gained prominence among other techniques of defying gravity and water pressure, the sport had tended to resemble, in the words of one coach, "ballet with the curtain halfway down" because the head, arms and upper body were so often underwater, busily keeping the legs on display. What ballet was visible was also upside down. Now the upper body is big in every routine. Mrs. Swan's swimmers can eggbeater kick themselves so high that they are out of the water from the waist up. It may not be long before some soloist does Botticelli's Venus—unfortunately with a suit and presumably without a shell—with only the toes doing any treading, and everything else acting out the number Hey Venus, Goddess of Love That You Are or rather something classical with the same theme.
None of which is to take anything away from the other fundamentals of synchronized swimming. From the basic ballet leg (which is the extending of one leg, poised as though for toe dancing, up in the air while the swimmer glides along on her back) to the open spin 180-degree back pike somersault gaviata, there are 114 officially recognized stunts, each graded according to its level of difficulty. In AAU competition a solo, duet or team number must include five of these standard stunts, plus any number of hybrid or improvised stunts (a dolpholina, for instance, is a cross between a dolphin and a catalina, and a swordalina is a cross between a sword-fish and a catalina, but these are official stunts; hybrids are even richer syntheses). "We have a film of us in last year's nationals," says Cygnet Jeanie Hayden. "We run it backward, and if we see anything cute, we use it for a hybrid." All of these movements must not only be performed with great poise and body control, as much below as above the water, but also be woven into a composition and synchronized with the accompanying music, which is generally semiclassical, background-type or classical. Asked whether rock music has ever been used, Cygnet Margo Hernandez, 13, says, "No, but one team used the Mickey Mouse Club song." Mrs. Swan has gone so modern as to work in a little Erik Satie. Points are awarded by judges (as many as 18 at once) to each stunt and to the routine as a whole, in such finely computed totals as 112.4875.
In the course of a competitive number, a team or an individual will range far and wide. Mrs. Swan likes a team number to cover the length of a 25-yard pool three or four times in five minutes, so good form and speed in the basic swimming strokes are required. But each stunt must be performed in a strict compass comparable to that of gymnastics, only without a bar to swing from. The technique that gives the swimmer controlled lift, and a sort of purchase on the stunt's ideal pattern in the water, is an impressively efficient, hard-to-define use of the hands and arms known as sculling.
Sculling is differentiated from paddling or finning, which is what most people, not to mention fish, do when treading water or swimming. Paddling is "a direct push by the palm along the line of propulsion," according to an article on the subject of sculling by an early expert named George Gordon Hyde. "Every drive stroke must be followed by a recovery stroke in the opposite direction...," he wrote. "[Paddling's] power is therefore necessarily intermittent.... When rapidly performed it is sporadic and jerky in appearance."