Friendship in the Pool: My Life as a Synchronized Swimmer -The Toast

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For ten years, from the time I was seven or eight until I graduated from high school, I spent my Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday mornings stretching my splits, swimming underwater lengths, and chewing the silicone ends of nose clips. The people who did all of these things with me are still some of my closest friends.

I think we’d probably be friends even if we only met now — we have similar interests and values and politics; we’re all smart and funny as hell — but these are also the only people in my life who know what land-drilling is, and still tense up to do it when they hear certain movie scores (looking at you, Rocky).

I’ve seen them for visits, one-on-one, over the years. Now, for the first time since we were teenagers, after months of emails composed mostly of “YAY!!!!!!!!!” and “This makes me so happy!” the four of us — Jen, Sarina, Danielle, and I — are in a room together in Austin, watching digitized video of our end-of-year synchronized swimming shows.

These are not professional-quality videos. We were not a professional-quality team. We, Cambridge Synchro, were the scrappy inner-city synchronized swimming team of eastern and central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. Listening to the stereo crackle and floating voices in the background makes us whisper and giggle as we wait for something to happen.

“I can smell the chlorine.”

“And the Knox!”

During competitions — as well as this show, an early June ritual to celebrate the end of our season — we would put our hair up in high buns, slick it back with hot gelatin, and top the buns with stiff, sequin-encrusted headpieces. The Knox set and kept the buns in place in the pool. It smelled like pee and feathers and formed a crust over our ears, so after the show we would peel it off like glue.

On the video, two people walk out from the locker room, off camera, and take their places at one end of the pool. A spotlight shines on them. I feel an honest-to-god adrenaline rush. “Is that me?”

“No, that’s me and Rebecca.”

A clumsy burst of music from Chicago, a few sweeps of the arm, and they dive into the pool.

A funny thing happens as we watch our routines — we start motioning along with them. In technical parlance, this is called land-drilling. We use our arms to pantomime leg movements and, of course, practice arm movements. With one pool and a dozen routines to keep track of at any given time, we mostly learned and practiced routines through land-drilling.

Sarina and Rebecca were strong and straight-legged, our unofficial A-team. Becca had stage presence: she made wonderfully expressive faces, all while smiling and gasping for air and wearing a nose clip. Sarina had grace and nuance. She and Becca were high out of the water, expertly positioned. On screen, they finished performing, and got out of the pool holding hands. We always held hands at the end of the show.

After fast-forwarding through several routines that don’t include us, we arrive at one of our team routines, for four or more people. Routines like this are what most people think of when they imagine synchronized swimming: rows of shiny heads; lipsticked, ghoulish open-mouthed smiles; splashy arm movements and kicks.

I’m not in this routine, but I know it. I feel it. I feel the tension in my lungs when they go under for long hybrids (the upside-down, legs-in-the-air moves, known as “hybrids” because they are mash-ups of strictly defined figures). I remember correcting where my toes pointed as I arched out of a split in the water. I remember that last, cruel burst of leg strength to get both arms in the air after a particularly punishing sequence of hybrids.

“I know this routine, but I’m not in the water.”

“Me too! Did we swim it the year after?”

“We must have. Bettina’s there, and I didn’t swim it with her. We must have done it the year after.”

We piece our memories together, the way my parents do when they’re reminiscing about which of their college friends lived with whom during various years, at various events: “If x and y were there, a and b must have been here.”

It’s good to have people who remember the parts of your stories you forget. 

There are solos in synchronized swimming. Smartasses might ask with whom the swimmers are synchronizing. The music, I suppose. A good solo will eliminate any doubt that this is, indeed, a sport.

Together we watch Sarina’s solo, rapt. Her delicate strength, her expressiveness, earned her a series of hauntingly good solos throughout high school. Legs at a 90-degree angle to each other, perpendicular to her upside-down torso, Sarina moves one in a perfect arc. Instead of being bent forward at the waist, she’s now arched, legs still 90 degrees, but on the other side of her body. And repeat. And again. A feat of ab strength.

“I loved this hybrid.” 

Loved it. Tried to copy it.”

Next up, Jen, Sarina, and Danielle — my crew, the people I’m watching with — swimming to “Baby Got Back.” This was a show routine, choreographed in a week or two before, never competed.

One person stands on the bottom of the pool to lift another. Any given show would have five of these or so. They were photo ops, and a chance to show off choreography skill.

Toward the end, we watch my duet with Joci, performed to music from Anastasia. Joci and I are clad in bedazzled blue crushed-velvet suits with mesh panels at the top. High glamour. There’s a knot in my throat. I loved this routine.

“This was a good routine. You had good doubles, Layler.” (Doubles — double ballet legs. You start by laying on your back on the surface of the water, and then you lift both legs up without letting your face go under.)

“This routine qualified for nationals, I think.” We didn’t go.

Joci and I started swimming at the same time; she was Little Duck and I was Little Platypus. In high school, we drifted apart, but she was my favorite person to swim with. In the video, we swim close, tight together, like we did when we were little. We get out of the water holding hands. I’m crying — in the video, and now, watching it.

In Austin, without Joci, but with my three best friends, my tears quickly turn back into laughter. Laughing about Jen’s small ankles, about the time Danielle made out with the wrong twin, about Sarina’s rallying cry (“Chicken!”), about my perpetual nakedness in the locker room. These are still my sisters. My people. It’s still difficult to explain the closeness borne of sharing an activity and its vocabulary, but in our case, the bond is unwavering — we’re still synchronized, still reminding each other to smile pretty while pushing hard.


Photo via Flickr

Layla Schlack is associate editor at Fine Cooking. She lives in Connecticut, and her closet's a mess.

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