Young synchronized swimmers pool their efforts


Marsea Nelson, age 13, and her mother, Barbara, were at their wits' end last year.

They had been making the 50-mile round-trip drive to Frederick twice a week to participate on the Frederick Swans synchronized swim team. But Marsea wanted more.

So, last fall, the Ellicott City family started the Starfish Synchro Club, a group of youngsters ages 9 to 13 who perform synchronized swimming -- complex movements of the arms, legs and hands, executed to music.

"It's a combination of gymnastics, dance and speed swimming," said Marsea.

Team members say synchronized swimming is a far cry from the kind of performance associated with Esther Williams, who performed water ballets in such movies as "The Million Dollar Mermaid" and "Neptune's Daughter." Instead, they say, the Olympic sport that involves muscle control, strength and endurance.

The team has competed in seven matches, including the U.S. Age Group Synchronized Swimming Championships in Minneapolis last month.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, the team meets for practice at the Fairland Aquatics Center in Laurel. Members begin their two-hour practice by swimming three-quarters of a mile.

At one recent practice, six girls and one boy cut through the water with ease, pausing to do handstands on one another's shoulders and elegant one-legged poses on their backs.

"It's fun," said Russell Hill, 10, who lives near Bowie. "You get to go underwater and do various things."

Synchronized swimming is made up of more than 100 figures, or body movements, with such names as heron, flamingo and foot-first dolphin.

In competition, swimmers are required to do four figures and a four-minute routine. They are not permitted to touch the pool bottom and are judged on their skill, technical difficulty and artistic merit.

"They have to be strong swimmers," Ms. Nelson said.

Performing the figures and staying synchronized with their teammates is the most difficult part of the sport, the youngsters said.

"In order to do some movements, you have to keep your foot pointed," Russell said. "And in some figures, you have to stay underwater for a long time."

The sport is more difficult than traditional swimming competitions, some children said.

"Synchronized swimming is more challenging," said Lyndsay Phillips, 13, of Laurel, who also belongs to a more conventional swim team. "There are millions of figures for you to do."

Others said that competing in the Starfish Synchro Club has improved their swimming skills.

"I've become a better swimmer because you have to stay in the water," said Vercera Harvey-White, 9, of Riverdale.

Assistant coach Diana Smith said many of the children could not complete a lap when they joined the team eight months ago. Now they can swim 56 laps with few breaks.

Coach Ginny Chadwick of Columbia hopes to improve the team's skills and to expand it beyond its current 13 members.

In the meantime, Ms. Nelson hopes to make synchronized swimming better known in Maryland.

"It's not well known here," she said. "We hope to make people more aware of it."

Anyone age 8 to 18 who is interested in learning about synchronized swimming can get information by calling the Fairland Aquatics Center at (301) 206-2359.

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