Imagine a gymnastic dance routine done in a pool. In the deep end. Underwater. While wearing full makeup.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the sport of synchronized swimming. It's beautiful to watch—swimmers glide seemingly without effort through the water, smiles on their faces, wrists and legs snapping in unison as they perform movements unique to the sport.
Sure, it looks easy, but here's the truth: "It's exhausting," says Mary Rose, coach of the Team Orlando Loreleis.
"I've only tried parts of it in my own pool, and believe me, it takes a lot of strength," says Jan Weirick of Orlando, Fla. She is watching her daughter, Dorema, practice with her six teammates at the Central Florida YMCA Aquatic & Family Center, where they train up to five days a week.
The 14-year-old is doing a slow backstroke across the pool, arms gracefully pinwheeling. Then she bends backward into a somersault that submerges her upside-down to her hips. She holds her legs above the surface for several seconds, toes pointing. She sinks slowly, her feet disappearing in a ripple of water. Seconds later, Dorema pops up, waving an arm, her fingers extended. Though she is smiling, she is breathing hard from exertion.
"Synchronized swimming has built up her endurance," her mother says. "She was very tired at first" after the workouts.
"It's a lot of hard work. It's two hours of just swimming," says Christine Henson of Orlando, whose daughter, Megan, 10, is a teammate.
Hours in the pool practicing the sport can bring an enviable level of physical fitness. "The physiological benefits are developing greater lung and cardiovascular capacity," says Dr. Jane Katz of New York. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and swim coach began participating in the sport in 1964, when a Hungarian coach taught her the moves.
Top synchro swimmers can hold their breath underwater for a minute or more while performing kicks and splits with their legs. And the cardio workout, with water providing muscle-building resistance, can burn several hundred calories a session, she says. Katz, who is 64 and still swimming synchro, says she is proof of the sport's benefits. "I've been told that I look a fraction of what (the age) I really am because it keeps you fit."
Requires More Than Just a Smiling Face
"It's the best all-around sport that there is," Rose says. "There isn't any part of the body it doesn't use."
There's the brain: "You have to memorize the routine."
Lungs: "You have to learn to hold your breath."
Wrists and arms: "They keep you afloat."
Legs: "Keeping your leg up in the air (while swimming) takes a great deal of strength and flexibility."