A half-dozen women glide through the water, forming and reforming in kaleidoscopic patterns.
A scene from an old Esther Williams movie?
No, although it could be. The members of the Olympia Downtown YMCA’s masters synchronized swimming team compete in glittering yet modest swimming costumes.
“In the freestyle routine, you wear a sequined bathing suit and you have your hair slicked back with Knox gelatin,” said Diana McCandless of Olympia, one of the swimmers.
The team’s combination of style and skill earned the women sixth place in the nation in the 50-to-59-year-old category at the annual masters championships held Oct. 22 to 25 in balmy Coral Gables, Fla., team captain Carolee Johnson said. The ages of team members are averaged to determine their category.
“Last year, the team placed seventh, this year sixth and next year we’re going for fifth,” she said. “We’ve got the time. It’s a sport you can improve in as you get older.”
They performed to the music of Elvis Presley in the freestyle competition and to a “Mamma Mia” medley for the more regimented technical routine.
“I would say it’s more like dancing than swimming,” said McCandless, who joined the team in January. “It’s maybe two-thirds dancing and one-third swimming. I love to dance, and that’s why I like it more than speed swimming.”
But don’t underestimate what it takes to excel.
Underneath all those graceful, swanlike moves, these women that range in age from their 30s through their 60s are working hard, said Tori Johnson, who teaches synchronized swimming and coaches and coordinates both masters and youth teams at the YMCA. She’s not related to Carolee Johnson.
“When I’m teaching younger kids, I call it the duck syndrome,” she said. “You are paddling like crazy below the water, but above the water it needs to look calm and graceful.
“The whole goal of synchronized swimming is to look effortless.”
She calls it “an artistic sport,” pointing out that judging is on both technical merit and artistic impression.
It’s comparable to gymnastics or figure skating, said Johnson, who’s been involved with synchronized swimming since childhood, when her mother was her coach. These days, she coaches and teaches at the YMCA with her daughter Jackie Barratt.
The masters championship meet was open to all.
“One of the ladies in our club calls it a women’s fest, which is kind of funny because it’s not all women – there are men,” she said. “But it has that feeling of ‘We’re all here – you show me your synchro, and I’ll show you mine.’”
Asked about the athletic requirements of synchronized swimming, McCandless laughed. “You need to be comfortable holding your breath for quite a while, much longer than you do with normal swimming,” she said.
“During our warm-ups, we swim underwater the length of the pool and then turn around and sprint back,” she added. “You need to build your cardio capacity.”
Beyond that, it’s a lifelong sport. “It’s so much fun, and it’s such good exercise,” Carolee Johnson said.
At age 52, she said later, “I’ve never been in better shape in my life.”
When McCandless joined the team for a free test lesson, she had never even seen synchronized swimming on television. She’d been swimming laps in the masters swimming program at the Briggs YMCA, and, as she put it, “I discovered I really didn’t care how fast I went.”
So she tried synchronized swimming instead.
“I just loved it,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘How did I get to be 38 years old and not know about this?’”
News-Tribune reporter Debby Abe contributed to this report.
Join the teams
If you are interested in taking synchronized swimming lessons or joining one of the Downtown YMCA’s teams for adults or youth, call coach Tori Johnson at 360-701-1655.