You would be forgiven if you didn’t know that Carleton had a synchronized swimming team. You would probably be forgiven if you didn’t even know what synchronized swimming was. Luckily for you, I didn’t know either, and decided to set out by following Carleton’s obliging Synchro team captain to watch a practice.
“Everyone comes late because no one wants to be there because it’s a Friday afternoon,” Hannah Quinn, a junior linguistics major, tells me without resentment as we hurry to practice.
“Yeah, for example, I noticed that we are currently five minutes late,” I offer as Cowling looms into view.
“Yes we are,” she says, and laughs.
I ask her what the mood of practice will be like, and what to expect. “We have our first meet in a week, we have four practices left until then so I’m assuming this practice will be a little bit tense.”
“How would you describe morale?”
“Medium. Not low not high.”
This strikes me as pretty good for a team with only eight members and almost no name recognition on campus.
“What will you do today?” I ask her.
“We start off by decking our routines and making sure everyone knows exactly what our routines are. Then we do a short warm up, then we break off into our groups. We have two team routines, a trio, and two duets. Then for the last half hour we practice our routines underwater and we have someone film. It’s a very perfectionist sport. Most of practice is ‘what did I specifically do wrong and how can I fix it?’”
Hannah speaks with a calm assurance of someone comfortable calling the shots.
“Does that go well? A bunch of girls in swimsuits criticizing each other?” I ask her, trying to picture what this combination of athletic power and dramatic performance would look like.
“It’s every woman’s dream isn’t it?” Hannah says with a laugh as we push into Cowling.
Cowling pool is a dimly lit, vaguely Soviet looking room with low atmospheric lighting. About six of the eight members are at this practice, and they mull about on deck talking to each other. I ask them why they decided to start synchro, recording their answers on my phone. They are willing but slightly bemused to talk to me.
Laina Cross, a sophomore, tells me, “I started when I was seven, I just got lucky to come to Carleton where we do have a synchro team, which is super rare for a liberal arts college.”
The other girls nod approvingly and they tell me that most of them swam competitively in high school, but when they came to Carleton they sort of stumbled into doing it, almost by accident. Avery Cheng tells me “I’ve always watched Olympic synchro and when I got here I thought ‘why not give it a try?’”
I tell them that most people I know have never heard of Carleton’s synchro team, and ask them how people react to it, and the reaction is a mixture of eye rolls and laughter. “Mostly ‘what’s that?’ or ‘is that synchro skating?’ No!”, says Laina.
Avery adds, “they’re like “oh our school has a synchro team?”
Rebecca Leer mentions that “during the activities fair Stevie P walked up and was like ‘oh I didn’t realize that we have a synchro team’”, which strikes me as kind of a rough thing to hear for a team that went to Nationals in 2013, a competition at Stanford.
Our conversation breaks up – they have work to do. Laina announces that it’s “time to shower!”, which I take to be some bizarre synchronized swimming ritual, but which turns out to be a dry-land performance of Becky-G’s aggressively cheerful pop song “Shower”. Watching them deck their routines is a baffling process.
They move in formation with their arms above the water, flapping their wrists and tilting their heads like tropical birds in an unenthusiastic interpretive dance. I try to imagine them in the water, and fail, but even to my unpracticed eye I can tell that something is going on in their movements.
They get in the water, warm up, and then they turn the music on. Once they’re in the water, the moves are transformed. The arm movements, so bizarre out of water, suddenly make sense in the context of head and shoulders out of water, their bodies moving in organized phalanxes through the water as a loudspeaker pumps the music out.
When their heads disappear underwater and they shoot their legs out above them, they seem more like architecture than human beings, and the movement is all controlled precision and accuracy. They do a lift by launching one of the swimmers from their arms all while underwater; she sails up, her head clearing the surface like a triumphant cannon ball.
When the song ends, they gather to critique each other, although no one seems to critique the others as harsh as they criticize themselves.
After Hannah’s trio finishes their routine, I ask her how she felt she did. “That was a poor swim,” Hannah says. “Why?” I ask, baffled.
“I messed up a lot,” Laina interjects, and Avery adds, “I still don’t know the formation.” They are critical of themselves, and driven, because this is, like Hannah said, a perfectionist sport.
They go back to practice. I’m there for almost two hours, and after a while they seem to forget that I’m there and immerse themselves in their routines. They run the songs. They critique. They try it again. Each run is better than the last. They swim fast, the hold their breaths, they keep count of the beats in their heads.
I ask the lifeguard on duty, Spencer O’Bryan, what he thinks when he watches practice, and I think he sums the whole sport up pretty well when he says that “synchro is really cool. A lot better than a normal shift. There’s a lot of movement, a lot of excitement. You can tell they work really hard.”