When many Americans think of synchronized swimming or artistic swimming or 'synchro', they recall the elaborate 1940s and 1950s aquatic productions starring Esther Williams, or perhaps the infamous Saturday Night Live parody sketch featuring Martin Short and Harry Shearer. To the casual observer, synchro swimmers seem to glide effortlessly through the water, executing stunts with ease and grace. But in reality, synchro is a demanding Olympic, collegiate, Age Group and Masters sport with outstanding all-around athletes: They must possess the flexibility and extension of a gymnast, the timing and musicality of a dancer, the strength of a water polo player and the endurance and conditioning of a long-distance runner or middle-distance swimmer.
Competitive synchro swimmers are often upside-down with their legs above the surface of the water, performing splits, spins and other movements that require power, split-second timing and incredible breath control. They tread water with both arms up, staying afloat using only their own strength and stamina. They throw and lift teammates high out of the water without touching the bottom of the pool — and all while trying to make it look easy.
Modern Synchro's Entertainment Roots
Synchro's perception as more-entertainment-than-sport likely stems from its history in aquatic spectaculars and on the silver screen. However, there's evidence that swimmers performed ballet-like maneuvers all the way back to ancient times. Benjamin Franklin was even said to have performed "ornamental swimming" moves in the Thames River during a 1724 trip to London. The first water ballet competition on record was held in Berlin in the early 1890s, consisting of all men.
Most synchro enthusiasts credit Australian swimmer and vaudeville star Annette Kellerman with inventing the modern sport of synchronized swimming — it began to gain popularity after she performed underwater in a large glass tank at The New York Hippodrome in 1907. Over the next 30 years, many countries began developing clubs and college teams, fine-tuning aquatic stunts. In 1923, Katherine Curtis founded the Kay Curtis Modern Mermaids water ballet club at the University of Chicago and gained worldwide attention and rave reviews after the group's "synchronized swimming" performance at the 1934 "Century of Progress" Chicago World's Fair. A number of aquatic entertainment troupes followed suit, the most well known being Billy Rose's Aquacade revue featuring actors Johnny Weissmuller and Eleanor Holm.
It was Billy Rose who discovered Esther Williams, a 1939 US Swimming freestyle champion and Olympic hopeful. When the 1940 Olympics were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II, Williams performed as a principal in Rose's shows. Hollywood soon took interest, with MGM signing her to star in a string of "aqua-musical" motion pictures in the 1940s and 50s choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Fittingly, her most famous film was Million Dollar Mermaid, a musical about Annette Kellerman's life.
In the 1970s and 80s, Ft. Lauderdale Swimming Champion Charkie Phillips continued Williams' legacy, performing old-school "water ballet" with the Krofftettes on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, NBC's The Big Show, and on screen with Miss Piggy in 1981's The Great Muppet Caper. Today, synchro swimming troupe the Aqualillies pays homage to old-Hollywood synchro with their shows and performances, and modern-style shows (like Le Rêve and "O") continue to attract crowds in Las Vegas.
History of US Competitive Synchro
While Esther Williams helped make synchro a pop culture phenomenon in the 1940s, competitive synchro was then still in its infancy. The first US synchro competition on record was held between Wright Junior College and the Chicago Teacher's College in 1939. But the inaugural synchronized swimming U.S. National Championships weren't held until 1946, just one year after the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) first recognized the sport. In 1951, US and Canadian teams demonstrated synchro at the Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then again at the 1952 Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
In 1954, the International Aquatics Federation (FINA) was formed, including a competitive division for synchro. A year later, the 1955 Pan American Games included synchro events, followed in 1971 by the World Aquatic Championships. In 1977, Ohio State University — still a synchro powerhouse today — swept every event at the first AIAW Intercollegiate National Championships. Finally, after nearly 40 years of advocacy and demonstrations by pioneering coaches and athletes, synchronized swimming was added to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984. Fifty women from 21 countries competed, with the United States winning the first solo and duet Olympic gold medals and icon Esther Williams serving as one of the TV commentators.
The United States and Canada dominated the sport in its early Olympic years, with Canada winning solo and duet gold in Seoul in 1988, the US taking gold in duet in Barcelona in 1992 and the two countries sharing the solo gold in 1992. In 1996 in Atlanta, the solo and duet events were replaced by the eight-person team event, in which the United States won the first team gold and earned the first perfect free routine score at the Olympics.
Due to the sport's international popularity, the duet event was added back into the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Russia, which had placed fourth in the Olympic events in 1992 and 1996, won the 2000 duet and team golds (the US placed fourth and fifth respectively) and has dominated international competition ever since. The US climbed back onto the medal stand in Athens in 2004, earning bronze in the duet and team events. But with more than 100 countries now fielding synchro programs and stronger competition from Europe and Asia, the US hasn't medaled in the Olympics since Athens (though the team made strong showings in 2008 (5th in duet and team) and made finals in 2012 (11th in duet)). With a revamped training regimen and rebuilding of its national program, the US team has high hopes of returning to the medal stand in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.