It's a busy Saturday morning at Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics. Sounds of splashing and children's voices echo through the instructional pool, which is brimming with goggle-sporting swim students and their instructors. At the far end of the pool, a group of 10 girls gather. One of their instructors is setting up a complicated-looking array of speakers, amplifiers and cords, while a second operates a swim-cap assembly line (swimmer holds cap to forehead and on count three the instructor snaps the back of the cap over her head - ready to go!)
The girls, age 6-11, are participants in the novice synchronized swimming class. Most have already graduated from beginner swim lessons; the novice synchro class requires that they are able to swim 25 yards and tread water. "I was on swim team for two years and wanted to try something new in the water," says participant Emily, 10. "I love the water!" she adds with a shy smile. Mollie and Amelia, both 7, say they decided to try synchro because it combines their two loves - swimming and dance. Another draw to the class is the 2012 London Olympics. Most of the synchro class members watched these elite athletes on the Olympic broadcast. Margaret, 10, says she liked the throws and lifts that the teams performed by elevating teammates out of the water from underwater pyramid-style platforms. "They stayed under for a really long time!" she enthuses.
At last, its time to get in the water, and the excited girls slip in and warm up with several lengths, stopping at the shallow end of the pool to do some stretching. Then, it's time to review some synchro skills. The girls fumble with their most important piece of equipment - the nose clip. Amelia says that the nose clips felt weird at first. "I liked doing flips without them," she says. Emily agrees it took some time to get used to the nose clips. "But after a while I liked being able to go upside down without getting water in my nose," she adds. And Amelia seems to have gotten used to them too. She's often seen wearing her bright purple nose clips on deck, long before she gets in the pool.
After some instruction, the girls assume a back layout (which is like a back float, but with pointed toes and extended legs). The swimmers bend their elbows and place their hands slightly below their hips. Sculling in and out from the elbow, they begin to move, two at a time, toward the deep end. This is called head-first standard scull, instructor Dayna Auten explains. When they reach the end, they head back, but this time moving toward their feet. To accomplish the foot-first standard scull, the swimmers point their fingertips toward the bottom. "Sculling is my favorite!" says Mollie, with a grin.
Next, the girls work on eggbeater. Eggbeater is the powerful kick that both synchro swimmers and water polo players use to support their bodies and arms above the water. The swimmers start by sitting on the edge of the pool with their knees apart (like in a middle split but with knees bent). They move their feet in circular motions - the right foot circling in a counterclockwise direction and the left foot circling in a clockwise direction, just like the kick's name sake -- the old fashioned kitchen implement. Then the swimmers try it in the water. As music begins to play over the sound system (the swimmers can hear the music underwater through an underwater speaker), the girls work on back tuck somersaults. Starting in a back layout, they quickly bring their knees over their heads and disappear under the surface in a tiny ball. Emily likes the feeling of being upside down in the water. "It feels like you're floating in space," she explains.
Like Emily, 17-year old veteran swimmer Carrie Hartnett started out as a competitive speed swimmer. Her swim coach also coached the local synchro team, the Flagler County Synchro Belles, and invited Carrie, then 10, to come try it. Carrie fell in love with synchro at her first practice and hasn't turned back.
What stands out most in her mind about her first practice was the cold. "I started late in the season and the water was freezing!" she recalls. In contrast, the Huntersville beginners practice in a pool that's kept at a balmy 88 degrees.
The new friends she made also stand out to Carrie. "I remember all the girls being so nice and helping me out because they had been doing it for a while. I felt like I was a part of the team already and that was a great feeling." Margaret and Emily are also participating in synchro, at least in part, because of the people. Margaret started the class with a group of friends. Emily looks forward to the opportunity to make new friends.
The beginner class is the first step in learning a sport that is meticulous, demanding and fiercely athletic. Carrie realized at her first practice that she was not a "floater". "I really struggled to even keep my head above water." The Huntersville newbies also find some aspects of synchro challenging. Mollie explains that if you don't scull fast enough, you'll sink. And Margaret mentions that forgetting to put your nose clips on can be quite unpleasant!
It is the challenges of this sport, and the sense of accomplishment that goes with conquering those challenges, that kept Carrie coming back. She typically practices two hours a day, including conditioning and working on technique and routines. She hopes to earn a medal in 2013 at the annual eSynchro U.S. Age Group Nationals, in Riverside, CA. Over the long-term she wants to swim on the University of Florida's synchro team. It's those goals that help her stay motivated on a difficult day. "When I don't feel like I have the energy to do something or there's not enough time in a day, I remind myself of my goals," she says.
Like many synchro swimmers, Carrie is busy in and out of the pool. She takes classes at the local college, as part of a dual enrollment program that allows her to earn her high school diploma and an Associate's of Art degree simultaneously. She is involved in her church's youth group and is committed to community service, recently helping organize a swim-a-thon for an epilepsy foundation. Carrie believes that without synchro, she would be lost. "It is the perfect creative and athletic outlet for me." She advises new swimmers to never give up. "Synchro may seem tough at first, but if you love it and work hard at it you'll be rewarded."
The new Huntersville swimmers are also involved in other activities including basketball, gymnastics, dance, horseback riding, music and youth groups. Who knows if synchro will become their passion as well? For now, Amelia looks forward to joining the team, where she wants to learn more skills. And someday, she beams, she wants to go all the way to the Olympics.