Issue 10.5: October/November 2007

Into the Blue

story by Becky Maltby
photos by Wayne Levin

 

Nice height on that eggbeater!” The comment goes to Rachel Finn.

“Go into your combined spin and then a rocket.” That’s for Susie Rodenkirchen.

In the middle of it, I’m trying to keep in mind whose legs are whose. I do know Rachel’s a brunette and Susie’s a blonde—but since their heads and torsos are both underwater at the moment, that doesn’t help me much. All I can see are calves and thighs—and both women have the muscular builds of veteran athletes. I stand on the pool deck at the University of Hawai‘i at MAnoa, trying to figure out how these two are keeping themselves upside down, perfectly straight, spiraling and holding their breath all at the same time.

“Dancing Cheek to Cheek” begins to play from a CD player, evoking the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Susie has surfaced, and as her face lights up, she begins her solo routine. Her arms strike quick poses in rhythm before she disappears underwater and her legs form into splits. “Get your upper body into it so there’s a bit more expression!” her coach Lisa Velez shouts over the music. Susie darts from one side of the pool to the other in a quick succession of stylized back and side strokes. When she’s finished, she receives some tips from her coach. “You’re not engaging your quads,” Lisa says. “You’re hitting a ballet leg, then you’re trying to arch.” Susie nods in agreement, but I don’t get it. It looked flawless to me.

On the other side of the pool, “The Hukilau Song” starts to play, and Rachel begins a precisely executed swim-hula. Her coach, Lianne Cameron-Vrielink, talks to her through a microphone hooked up to an underwater speaker. “Keep your legs centered about your body,” she urges upside-down Rachel in a voice that’s
both assertive and encouraging.

As the sun beats down on my shoulders and I admire the strength and grace I’m witnessing, I’m certain of one thing: Synchronized swimming—or “synchro” as it’s widely known—feels like a perfect fit for Hawai‘i. “The sport is really taking off here, isn’t it?” I ask the coaches. They exchange pleased smiles. “That’s what we think,” says Lianne. “The sport is really making some headway.”


 

When synchronized swimming was introduced to the Olympics in 1984, it was the butt of more than a few jokes. Elaborate swim ballets reminiscent of ’50s-era Esther Williams movies were suddenly vying for the gold, and what many thought of as aquatic ballerinas were kicking and stroking into kaleidoscopic patterns in the world’s foremost sporting competition. People had trouble taking it seriously. “You must have seen the Saturday Night Live skit,” Lisa laughs, recalling the mid-’80s Harry Shearer-Martin Short spoof that featured the two as passionate but abysmal synchro swimmers.

“One of the things that masks the difficulty [of the sport] is that we train our athletes to make it look effortless,” says Lisa, “to make it graceful and beautiful with the strength elements in it. It’s very similar to figure skating.” In more ways than one: Like figure skating, synchronized swimming is now a hot ticket at the Games. “It’s actually the most popular sport at the [summer] Olympics,” Lianne says. “It’s the first to sell out.”

And so the once-mocked sport is gaining credence across the globe. Its arrival on Island shores was a bit of a fluke, though. Lianne and Lisa didn’t move to Hawai‘i to start up a synchronized swimming program. Sure, both were former members of the US national team, but that wasn’t what was driving them. For Lianne, the lure of Hawai‘i was the weather. “My husband and I thought, ‘Why wait until retirement?’ We had no kids, no jobs and no home. So we packed up what we had and three months later moved out here. Best move we ever made!”

Lisa came to earn her master’s degree in education at the University of Hawai‘i. Not long after she arrived, she found herself teaching a synchronized swimming class at a summer aqua camp. “That was really the first gig [in Hawai‘i],” she says. “When I started coaching again, I thought, ‘I can’t give this up. I absolutely love this.’” Lisa knew Lianne was also living on O‘ahu. She contacted her and “we decided to really make a go of it,” she recalls.

Really make a go of it they did. In 2005, the two established the Hawai‘i Synchro Club, teaching at three ascending levels—junior, senior and master—at the La Pietra and West O‘ahu pools. They also established a collegiate team at UH MAnoa. “It took awhile to get through the red tape,” says Lianne, “but we went through the whole process.” The pair has high hopes for the school’s team: They believe UH MAnoa may soon be on par with top synchro schools like Stanford and Ohio State University, citing Hawai‘i’s weather as a formidable asset.

Rachel and Susie—the brunette and the blonde UH athletes I watched practice—certainly consider themselves fortunate to be able to practice synchro year-round outdoors and in the sun. But they’re humble when it comes to their skills. “Sometimes when you’re moving through the water, you feel like a dolphin and you feel very graceful and energetic,” Susie says, drying off after practice. “But other days, you feel more like a monk seal. Then I’m just waiting for the rest of the routine to end so I can fall out onto the side of the pool and beach myself.”

“Out of the water,” Rachel says, “I’m the most ungraceful person.”


 

Last summer, the Hawai‘i Synchro Club sent a team of eight to the Oceania Games in Brisbane, Australia; Hawai‘i, thanks to the fact that it sits in the middle of the Pacific, was the only US state eligible to compete. “The Oceania Federation was thrilled to have us there,” Lianne says. The Hawai‘i team was drawn from all levels, with swimmers ranging in age from 14 to 31, and it swam away with seven medals.

Fifteen-year-old Paige Ramsey is a member of the team that went to Australia and is a dedicated synchro swimmer. “I get so excited,” she enthuses. “When there’s an audience, it doesn’t feel like a competition anymore; it feels like a show.” Synchro swimmer Savannah Forrester agrees. “It’s one of the best feelings in the world,” the 17-year-old says. “Your adrenaline just goes crazy.”

What about nerves?

“Oh yes, for sure,” says Brianna D’Amico, another 17-year-old. “You just have to get yourself psyched for it.” But youngest team member, 14-year-old Lauren Nicholson, brushes off the jitters. “I just get excited,” she says.

I’m meeting the young swimmers at practice. Out here, at the West O‘ahu pool, the adrenaline is muted and the mood is relaxed. Gone is the audience, the nerves, the serious pressure, and the element of fun is almost palpable. Watching, I remember Paige’s sister Mary describing her favorite throw: “There are four girls underwater holding the feet of another girl, and the girl with her feet being held has a girl crouching on top of her. The girls underneath push, the girl with her feet being held stands up, and the girl on top jumps off, making her fly out of the water.” It may look as seamless as a Buzby Berkley musical, but this is seriously hard work. And it’s work that’s paying off. Last summer, the Hawai‘i Synchro Club hosted the 2007 US Open of synchro swimming. It was a coup for the new club, with the competition drawing hundreds of participants from all over the world. The Hawai‘i team did “really well,” says Lianne, with Island swimmers placing in both the solo and duet events. “It was great to see our girls up on the podium.”

Competitions like these are, Lianne says, a chance for people to really see the sport at its best. “But,” she adds, “we want Hawai‘i residents to know that we’re about more than just a one-time event. We’re here.” HH