“Claws up or down?”
Ann Weissman is hunched over like a B-movie were-wolf, hands thrust out as if poised to attack a naughty teen couple at Makeout Point. But her intentions are hardly sinister, a fact underscored by her cheery lavender T-shirt and pleated gym shorts. She is preparing to practice a synchronized-swimming routine, coordinated to a Michael Jackson medley that opens with the ominous strains of “Thriller.” But before the music begins, she must iron out a key detail with her duet partner—should their hands be positioned palms up or palms down when the play button is hit?
Minutiae like palm placement are serious business in synchronized swimming, perhaps the world’s most nitpicky sport. Poorly flexed toes, mistimed ankle twists, disjointed head swivels—any of these seemingly trivial slip-ups can relegate a synchro team to also-ran status.
Of course, the average American is about as familiar with the arcane nuances of synchronized swimming as they are with the bureaucratic structure of Lesotho. Even now, as the Olympics approach and the sport enjoys its quadrennial moment in the spotlight, mention synchro to the average man on the street and the typical response is indifferent mumbling about girls gussied up in sequined swimsuits. “Mostly, people just think it’s an easy sport, that it’s all about how you look,” complains Nora Aion, Weissman’s duet partner.
But New York City’s synchro enthusiasts know better. They fancy themselves not only legitimate athletes, but among the planet’s most underappreciated competitors. “You need the breath control of a marathon runner, you need the strength of a gymnast,” says Aion, a linguistics doctoral student at CUNY who swims with Manhattan’s only synchro team, the Manhattan Plaza Masters. “It’s about equal to figure skating, in terms of artistry. Except we don’t breathe.”
Though few contemporary New Yorkers are synchro devotees, the city figures prominently in the sport’s history. Bathing beauty Annette Kellerman, perhaps the first widely admired “underwater ballerina,” performed sold-out shows at the old Hippodrome during the early 1900s. And Olympic gold-medal swimmer Eleanor Holm, along with Tarzan stud Johnny Weismuller, wowed audiences at the 1939 World’s Fair as the stars of “Billy Rose’s Aquacades,” a synchro forerunner.
Though officially recognized by the Amateur Athletic Union in 1941, the sport didn’t make its Olympic debut until 1984—and then only at the behest of International Olympic Committee bigwig Monique Berlioux, a lifelong fan. In Atlanta in 1996, the American team snagged gold with a rousing interpretation of “Fantasia on an Orchestra,” earning an almost unheard-of perfect score.
But many Americans know synchro not from the Games, but rather from the classic Saturday Night Live skit in which Martin Short, one half of a fictional male synchro duo, dons water wings and stammers, “I’m not . . . a . . . very . . . strong swimmer.”
Synchro has always been lampooned by self-styled athletic purists, who commonly regard it as a nonsport on par with tiddlywinks. One particularly prickly columnist once insulted 1984 Olympic champion Tracie Ruiz-Conforto by writing, “[She] is considered to be the finest synchronized swimmer in history, which rates as a distinction with being the producer of the finest Barbara Walters television special in history.”
Not helping matters was an ill-advised sound bite delivered by Canadian Carolyn Waldo at the 1988 Games: “You have to be fairly attractive and have a good body to be successful. I mean, if the judges don’t want to look at you for five minutes, it doesn’t matter if you’re good.” For a sport whose participants already receive ample flack for wearing mascara and plastering their hair smooth with Knox gelatin, it was an unneeded public-relations black eye.
Members of the Manhattan Plaza Masters, who have been competing on the amateur circuit since the mid 1980s, bristle at the stereotypes. The current team, which consists of four women in their 30s and 40s, practice for over six hours each Sunday. Much of their time is spent out of the pool, practicing balletic routines in a classroom at the Manhattan Plaza Health Club. Weissman, the team’s de facto captain and designated taskmaster, spends a great deal of on-land time picking on little things—”Get your pinkie down!” is a typical exhortation.
When they finally take to the pool, the physical exertion involved is palpable. After completing a run-through of their five-minute duet, much of which involves treading water upside down—touching the pool floor is a cardinal sin, an automatic two-point deduction—Weissman and Aion gasp as if they’ve just completed a 10K. A lone minute of performing synchro’s most basic move, the leg-churning “eggbeater,” can be as exhausting as any 50-meter sprint.
Particularly challenging are so-called “bad-breath moments,” those occasions when a swimmer verges on oxygen deprivation while underwater. Every swimmer remembers a moment when the survival instinct kicked in, forcing them to surface out-of-turn. “When you do make a mistake, you’ve got to come up with a lot of enthusiasm, like you didn’t do anything wrong,” says Cathy Grupper, Aion’s sister. One crucial trick is the constant smile, which must remain plastered on a competitor’s face through any disaster—a lost nose plug, a pulled muscle, a concussion induced by an errant leg kick.
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.”
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.