Athletes in the Swim of Things
With fluid grace, the young women in the Northern Virginia Nereids make synchronized swimming look easy. They glide effortlessly through the water in perfect coordination, turning this way and that precisely together like a school of fishes. Their bright smiles, which never slip, signal that this elegant water sport is great fun.
The message sent by the smiling, graceful appearance of the swimmers is only half right – synchronized swimming is great fun, but it isn't easy. Like any other competitive sport, it takes long hours of practice to master skills such as the egg beater propulsion, ballet legs, sculling and the toss lift, where the swimmers propel each other out of the water using only their arms and legs -- in 12 feet of water, there is no way they could use the pool bottom for lift off, even if they wanted to!
"It's more athletic than you might imagine," said Erin Hildreth, a former synchro swimmer and one of the Nereid's eight coaches. "You need a lot of muscle and core control, strength, cardio stamina and endurance -- anaerobic endurance too because you're doing this all without oxygen. And in addition to the intricate moves and holding your breath, you have to worry about moving in perfect harmony with seven other girls."
A speed swimmer growing up, Hildreth made the switch to synchro in college. Although many girls start the sport at a young age, synchro also attracts its athletes from the speed swimming "pool," while others migrate from dance and gymnastics "We get kids who lack that competitive edge for speed swimming or just prefer team sports, and the dancers and gymnasts often already have a great sense of musical timing, so it fits," Hildreth noted.
The youngest girls (between 8-12) practice two nights per week for five hours total; the 13 to 15-year-olds do that plus Saturday mornings, and the senior girls over 15 train four times per week, all at the Nereids' home pool at Audrey Moore RECenter. They turn the pool deck into a fitness room for a half-hour of split stretches, Pilates-like exercises, push-ups and sit-ups to build core strength and upper body and leg muscles. Then they hit the water in their dark blue caps emblazoned with NVN for laps and rehearsal of the routines of spins, lifts and swimming patterns choreographed by the coaches -- and sometimes by the girls themselves. The regimen "puts the time management and social organization skills for high school girls to the test, big time. But they always show up with their smiles on, so we know they love it," joked Hildreth. In addition to the scheduled practices, the girls also do daily land drills to work on hand motions and often get together in their duets and trios at the RECenter pool to practice on their own time.
The Nereids are a force in the sport, winning the championship for the South Zone in 2006 and claiming third place last year. Currently, one Nereid alumnus, currently in college at the University of Incarnate Word in Texas, is on the U.S. National Team II and two others have spearheaded the synchro team at George Mason University. "We don't have an Olympian . . . yet," concluded Hildreth, her confident smile promising that it's only a matter of time.
If you’d like to give synchronized swimming a try, the Nereids always welcome visitors and new members in the 12 and under division, and they’ll host a summer synchro session June 17-July 10 for all interested in the sport. For information, call 703-407-6298 or visit www.nvnsynchro.com.