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Pool Precision

Synchronized swimming team demands endurance and grace

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In the video above, learn how the synchronized swimming team does all those complicated moves. Video by Nicolae Ciorogan.

Take a left by the Fitness and Recreation Center’s squash courts, walk down the long hallway, and on certain evenings, you’ll find a group of 11 women standing in a precise pattern, waving their arms in time to fast-paced instrumental music blaring from a boom box. They shut out the slap of racquetballs and the muted bass of the spin class around the corner to concentrate on matching their movements as closely as possible.

Meet the BU synchronized swimming team, a University-recognized club sport. The women are using what they refer to as dry land practice time to perfect the movements they’ll need to execute in the pool later in the evening.

First known as water ballet, synchronized swimming became famous during the 1940s and ’50s when Esther Williams, the champion swimmer-turned-actress, starred in a number of Hollywood films that popularized the sport. A combination of swimming, gymnastics, and choreography, synchronized swimming demands enormous strength, breath control, and the precision timing and fluidity of ballet.

Because synchronized swimming is a club team, not a varsity sport, practice time is limited. The team gets only six hours of pool time and three hours of dry land practice a week. And in the world of collegiate synchronized swimming, where club programs like BU’s often compete against Division I varsity programs, every second of practice time counts.

“Varsity and club teams compete together, which is unique to our sport,” explains Danielle Dugan (CAS’00, SED’08), one of the team’s two coaches. “We compete against varsity programs, which have pool time every day, athletic trainers, and full-time coaches. Club teams have to find a way to compete with that.”

“Most varsity teams have their needs met by their universities, while club teams rely on donations from individuals and contributions from the swimmers’ and coaches’ own pockets,” says Eugenie Gillan, the other coach. But there are also advantages to being a club sport. “Our club swimmers have that greater balance—they have the opportunity to focus on academics and participate in other activities,” Gillan says, “because they aren’t practicing 20 hours a week.”

The club began a decade ago, but Dugan and Gillan, who have known each other for 20 years, stepped in as head coaches only last year. Gillan began coaching Dugan in synchronized swimming in Andover, Mass., when she was just 10. Dugan played on the University’s water polo team as an undergraduate, since BU had no synchronized swimming program. She began coaching a youth program with Gillan after graduating.

When the previous coach left last year, members of the BU team approached Dugan about coaching, and she persuaded Gillan to join her. “I love giving back to BU, and being involved here,” Dugan says. “I want to give students the same outstanding opportunities I had when I was here.”

Attend any synchronized swimming practice, and it’s immediately apparent that the two have very different, but complementary, coaching styles. Dugan is methodical and calm, explaining moves and instructions in detail. Gillan is exacting, a perfectionist who calls out corrections during routines and exhorts swimmers to be “sharper!”

“Our coaches are ying and yang, and that works well for our group,” says Ellen Scott (CAS’11). “You are going to absorb the material from either one of them, because they both give their knowledge in different ways.”

For Dugan and Gillan, coaching is a labor of love. Neither gets paid for her time. Dugan works full-time as a development officer at Lesley University, Gillan as a software engineer for a local company.

“I choreograph on my long commutes to and from work and to and from here,” Gillan says with a smile. “It’s the only time I have to do it. I listen to the music over and over and set the choreography, all in the car.”

Dugan spends hours after work and practice determining the lifts, patterns, and positions swimmers are ready to take on and which ones may earn them the most points at competition time.

The club’s swimmers are divided into two teams: the A team, comprising experienced synchronized swimmers, and the B team, those newer to the sport. Several of this year’s freshmen swimmers had never tried synchro, but were encouraged after meeting members during SPLASH! and other start-of-school events.

“We get girls who may not fit in in other sports, who may be looking for an outlet beyond traditional speed swimming,” says Dugan. “This sport has so many dimensions to it beyond the swimming—you build even more endurance, more strength than speed swimming.”

Watching the team in action, it is apparent that synchronized swimming is unlike any other swimming event. Endurance is tested during the team’s four-minute routines, where several underwater skills are essential—for example, being headfirst in the water with their legs executing synchronized movements above the surface. Holding their breath underwater and maintaining their position below the surface for up to 30 seconds at a time is challenging—and one of the best demonstrations of how difficult the sport is.

Swimmers’ athleticism is evident during lifts, where team members use what’s called an eggbeater kick to jettison teammates out of the water. To execute the lift, swimmers arrange themselves quickly into three groups: a flyer (usually the smallest member on the team), a base (this person must have a solid body core), and the pushers (usually the bigger swimmers on the team), who are spaced strategically around the lift. The pushers lift the base and flyer to the water’s surface, where the flyer completes the lift. The pushers cannot let their feet touch the pool’s bottom at any time during the routine, and the base must hit her point on the pushers’ arms without looking. As if that weren’t demanding enough, the entire exercise must be completed in time to the music selected for the routine.

“You really have to feel out how they’re doing, where they are, and if they’re ready,” explains Scott, the A team’s flyer. “And it goes by very quickly. You have to have that trust in your teammates that they are going to be there.”

The team is making strides competitively. Both the A and B teams finished in the top 20 in routines this year, and four swimmers made the top 10 in D level figures during the U.S. Collegiate Nationals in Buffalo, N.Y., March 16 to 19.

“Our hope is to build the strongest team using the resources that we have,” Dugan says. “We hope that synchronized swimmers will want to continue this sport in college and want to come to BU to do it so we can begin to build a more competitive program.”

For Gillan, the real reward is teaching swimmers skills they can take beyond the pool. “I want them to learn to be a better team member and get that enjoyment from working together that I got from my coaches when I started the sport. Just being able to be a part of program where I can make that difference, to make them better people, is an amazing experience.”

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