Synchronized Swimming in New Hampshire

Behind the scenes (and under the water) with a New Hampshire synchronized swimming team
Riley Cullen of Manchester goes deep while the team assembles for a routine.
By David Mendelsohn

There are two sides to every story, so they say. And sometimes the side you don’t see is the one where all the action takes place. Nowhere is that more true than in the topsy-turvy world of synchronized swimming, where aquatic power equals dramatic poise.

They say there’s no “I” in “team,” but every team sport has its heroes. In the end there’s the winning goal, the closer, the one who takes it to the finish line where glory shines upon the chosen few. Every sport, that is, except Synchronized Swimming, where the individual is truly submerged so that the team can rise to the top.

Maybe that’s why synchronized swimming, just called “synchro” by fans and athletes, is still struggling to earn respect. It has been around for more than a century and been an official Olympic competition since 1984 (it debuted in 1952), but it’s almost unique as a sport where you score by not standing out, where the whole of the team is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course, this is America, land of the individual, so the sight of what sometimes looks like a Broadway chorus line in identical outfits, diving into the pool, swimming in circles and making jazz hands seems, well, peculiar.

Or maybe it’s because it’s just so pretty.

With no surfaces (or gravity) to depend on, connections like the one here help create structure in synchro.
By David Mendelsohn

“A lot of people think it’s weird,” says Sarah Hannaford, a 16-year-old Bedford High School Junior and a member of the Catalinas synchro team that practices at the Manchester YMCA twice a week. “A lot of people are surprised you wear makeup in the water.” But being in the water, to her, is just a natural part of life. She’s been swimming practically since she was born. “I’d gone through all the levels,” she says. “I didn’t want to just swim laps. I wanted to do something different.”

Sarah doesn’t mind being different. Her interests are all over the place. Along with swimming, she’s into photography and has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She says she’s not much of a dancer, which surprises people. People assume you come to the sport from dance since it sometimes looks like ballet. In fact, that’s what it was originally called: “water ballet.” It was popular from the start in its early years around the beginning of the 20th century, often performed in giant glass tanks on a stage.

Three swimmers rising in the bent-knee position — when completed the entire knee will appear above the water.
By David Mendelsohn

Once it became competitive, men moved in to rule the game but not for long. University athletics rules vied against men and women competing together in swimming events and international rules developed that were tilted toward women in competition cinched the deal. Synchro, on the international and Olympic levels at least, has remained a female-only sport.

Head coach of the Catalinas is Liana Thomas, who competed in synchro on her college team at Wheaton. “It’s a strenuous sport,” she says. “Like running a sprint around the pool, jumping the water and holding your breath all the while using all your muscles and making it all look easy.” She loved it. Soon after graduating she worked at Boston University, helping to coach their synchro club. When she heard about an opening at the Manchester Y, she couldn’t believe it. “I didn’t know it existed here,” she says. She jumped right in. “I was going into teaching anyway,” she notes, “and this is such a great age range.”

A group of 11 and 12 year olds in back layout position practice a part of their dance medley routine.
By David Mendelsohn

She appreciates how synchro provides core strength and balance. How it’s not suited to any one body type as long as one has muscle tone and flexibility. The girls perform in deep water so they never touch the bottom, she explains. “So when you do a split or during back arches, you are exerting yourself and controlling your postures without the resistance of the floor, all while holding your breath.”

She and her fellow coaches guide about 27 girls, aged from 9 to 18 through their paces: colorful routines, dramatic lifts or throws and basic positions like the back layout, where the body seems to float motionless while unseen below her hips the swimmer’s hands make swift sculling motions to precisely control position in the water.

It’s sort of like the illusion of watching a swan drift like a white cloud across a lake, while beneath the water’s surface its legs are paddling with power and speed.

The form being used by these swimmers in the 14–18-year-old group shows the connection that allows one arm to be raised during a samurai-themed routine.
By David Mendelsohn

Thomas provides the techniques and gives feedback on their form and symmetry. She sets the beat, like a conductor with a choir. And she knows that she’s providing more than just technical pointers. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” she allows. “Having this be their sport, and the thing they want to excel at. My being the one to get them there. It’s always on my mind.”

The girls learn the value of hard work. They learn how hard it is to be a part of a team but also how it strengthens you to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And they learn the joy of entertaining an audience. The music that accompanies their performances pleases the crowd, but the secret that only the swimmers know is that it sounds even better underwater, where, free of gravity and with the control gained by practice, they become united in the rhythm and roll of the notes.

The team in vertical  position “stands on tiptoe” preparing to raise their legs completely out of the water while remaining perpendicular to the surface.
By David Mendelsohn

Thomas helps to choreograph their routines — the dramatic performances. Makeup, costumes and elaborate headpieces help create a scene but the judging is mostly upon the precision of their lines, the heights of their lifts, and the smoothness of their flow from one element to another. She maps out every detail from arm movements to facial expressions. “That’s a hard piece for them to get. During practice, I’ll carry a little white board and tell them that I put down a check mark every time I see one of them not smiling.” And though it’s carefully planned, sometimes here, just like in theater, you have to improvise. Someone will miss a cue and it’s up to the others to pick up the pace, fill in the gap and carry on as if nothing happened.

She’s firm in her instructions, but sympathizes with their mistakes.

“My very first competition I dove in and lost my nose clip,” she says. The clip is what allows the swimmers to perform in all angles underwater, even upside down for long periods, without a painful blast of pool water entering their sinuses. “We always recommend that they have extras in their suits,” she says. “You can’t do it without a nose clip.”

Coach Liana Thomas offers the team some pointers after a practice session.
By David Mendelsohn

Olivia Caselden, a 15-year-old from Derry, says she has lost her own nose clip a few times. “It’s never fun,” she says. “You’re kind of in shock.” She explains that the team trains wearing goggles, but during competitions you just have to open your eyes in the pool and do the best you can with what you can see. “It’s very challenging, especially during lifts when you have to hold on to someone. It’s hard to keep track. Everyone is wearing the same suit.”

But whatever happens, she says the coaches always know what to say. And the team spirit that is forged in the water remains strong after practices and competitions as well. “Oh my gosh, yes,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve made on the team.”

Riley Cullen, 13, strikes a victory pose.
By David Mendelsohn

For one team member, Molly Spalding, 18, of Mont Vernon, the Catalinas are about both friends and family. Her younger sister, Katie, is also on the team and her mother, Beth, is assistant coach and a longtime synchronized swimmer. “The team is like a group of sisters,” says Molly. “Having the different ages is very important. Older girls get to teach the younger girls and we all have to learn how to work with one another.”

And they learn how to take joy in one another’s achievements. When her kid sister, Katie, qualified for nationals last year, she got to accompany her to California. “It was great to see our team’s name up there with some of the big teams like Walnut Creek,” she says. Walnut Creek calls itself “Home of the Olympians.” And indeed, the girls visiting there got to train with a synchro swimmer who had medaled at the a recent summer Olympics.

Molly says her favorite portion of competition is figures. “They are like miniature routines without music,” she says. “They last about 30 seconds. They are judged on preciseness, speed and control or when someone is upside down how high she can get her legs out of the water.”

By David Mendelsohn

She hopes that whatever college she enters will offer synchro. “Unfortunately, not many have it,” she says, but one way or another she can imagine keeping at it for the rest of her life. She recently learned about an 80-year-old woman who still competes in synchro.  “I find that amazing,” she says. “She’s still competes against herself. I guess there’s no one else in her age category. She broke her hip and said the one thing she wanted to do is to get back in the water as soon as her hip gets better.”

That kind of intergenerational connection is not unusual in sports, but how many 18 year olds have ever heard of 1940s-era movie star Esther Williams, much less count her as a role model? “My sister and I both do,” says Molly. Williams, known as the Million Dollar Mermaid for one of her greatest film roles, transformed the sport into a national passion during the years of WWII and was invited to introduce it at the 1984 Olympics when it was finally credentialed for competition.

Williams died last year at the age of 92. When coach Liana Thomas spoke at the end of the year awards banquet for the Catalinas, she began her remarks with a quote: “Esther Williams once said, ‘By the time I got home at night, my eyes were so chlorinated I saw rings around every light.’ A synchronized swimmer truly knows what she meant when she said that!”

But to those who love the freedom and discipline of the water — the unique comradeship of synchronized swimming — those rings of light seem just like little halos of shared glory.

Cool Pools

Granite State pool owners are an intrepid bunch. After all, the time is short between the day the ice melts on the outdoor pool and the day the fall leaves start to clog the pump. But all year long, in just about every part of the state, you can find lovely indoor pools where there’s no skimming required and the only ice breaking you need to do is to introduce yourself to the person doing laps in the next lane.

The photos for this story were all taken at the Manchester YMCA pool (pictured), where the Catalina Synchronized Swimming Team holds their twice-weekly practices. If you are ready to break out that bathing suit before the snow melts, here is a short list of other pools around the Granite State that are worthy of splashing into. *Editor's Note: Updated in August, 2016 with information about the new UNH outdoor pool.

  • Stretching six lanes wide and 25 yards long, the Natatorium at Plymouth State University is the home of the school’s women’s swimming and diving team but also made available for YMCA competitions and swimming and scuba lessons. For about 20 hours per week, the pool is open for recreational swimming.
  • Dover Indoor Pool (Henry Law Avenue, Dover). Twenty-five yards by six lanes offers many aquatic services, including swimming and diving lessons, lap and therapy swims, scuba classes, aqua aerobics and birthday parties.
  • Lebanon Veterans Memorial Pool (Taylor Street, Lebanon). A 25-yard, eight-lane outdoor pool that also offers swimming lessons.
  • Raco-Theodore Pool (Head Street, Manchester) is home of the Manchester High School West swim team and measures 50 meters long with 10 lanes. The heated outdoor pool is open to the public from 1 p.m. -4:45 p.m. and from 6 p.m.- 7:45 p.m.
  • The University of New Hampshire Campus Recreation department recently announced the grand opening of its new outdoor pool. On Friday, August 19 from 2-7 p.m. enjoy this fun, free event that includes games, food, giveaways and, of course, swimming in the new pool. Complementary parking is available in the Woodsides Lot.

– By Matt Ingersoll, photo by Rick Broussard


Categories: Features