'N Synch

In New York, the Sport of 'SNL' Spoofs Is Treading Water

Good musical instincts are as vital to success as powerful lungs. Underwater speakers are fickle pieces of equipment, often failing mid routine. As a result, synchro swimmers are taught to keep an internal eight-count. In emergencies, a team leader takes charge and emits sonic cues to let everyone know when to spin, scissor-kick, or burst forth with arms spread wide. "We've had a few times where the speakers go out," says Sarah Schindler, another longtime veteran. "But somebody beeps, and we don't lose a single bit." The Olympians have perfected dolphinlike clicks; the Manhattan Plaza Masters make do with more primitive shrieks and yelps.

Vinnie Coticelli is one of the rare males to have experienced synchro first hand. As Weissman's husband, he was lured into giving the sport a try in the late 1980s. "When it started, it was a bit of a joke," he says. "But I stayed with it because it was such a strenuous workout." He performed a duet with his wife for several years, a fact that gave his blue-collar buddies no shortage of comic material. "I'm an electrician in Brooklyn," says Coticelli. "You can only imagine how much mileage they got out of that one."

Since international competitions are still female-only, however, Coticelli missed out on the team's finest hour—a bronze medal at the 1989 world masters meet in Denmark. But then "everybody started having babies," says Weissman, and practices have since become far less regular, less rigorous affairs. The current team, which will compete at the national masters meet in Landover, Maryland, this October, is the smallest in memory. "For the first 10 years, we had no problem," says Aion. "We had two teams, and it would be competitive—who would be on the A team, who would be on the B team."

One . . . two . . . three . . . kick: the Manhattan Plaza masters in action
photo: Pak Fung Wong
One . . . two . . . three . . . kick: the Manhattan Plaza masters in action

Recruitment is difficult, says Weissman, because of the physical demands. "Everyone wants to do it because it's so pretty and it looks like ballet," she says. "But they get in there and it's not that easy. So it's hard to hold onto beginners."

That lack of participation will pretty much doom the Manhattan Plaza crew to a lackluster showing at nationals. Judges deduct a half-point for each swimmer missing from the standard complement of eight, so New York's representatives will start with an insurmountable two-point handicap. "Obviously, it puts us at a major disadvantage," sighs Weissman. "But the masters aren't really that cutthroat. It's more social."

But with the Olympics on tap, a surge of newcomers might test the movement-coordinated waters. Indeed, synchro fever already seems to be shifting into high gear. At a recent prepractice meal in Hell's Kitchen, the team was delighted to see a synchro-themed credit-card commercial playing on the diner television. In the ad's finale, the United States national team contorts into an undulating series of letters, spelling out "V-I-S-A."

Weissman likes the spot, but she wishes they could have ended things with a more challenging maneuver. "Compared to the rest of the stuff they do," she says, "that last part was easy." Not that a layman would ever know what's simple and what's hard—the smiles never change.

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