Team Chlorine 

Synchronized swimmers share their secrets for success and hair shellac

The Brecksville Blue Dolphins pool their resources. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The Brecksville Blue Dolphins pool their resources.
Wearing velvet underwater puts the dry world in perspective. Famine, nuclear holocaust -- pshaw! Worries are few, but primal: Will you sink from your own absorbency? Are you gonna get a wedgie?

"Wedgies are a big problem," confides Martha Montgomery, a lifter on a formation that looks like a flower. "And sequins -- they really stick into your skin. The velvet suits we had one year, those were really icky. Sometimes, your straps fall down, or your suit will just fall apart when you're swimming."

Such are the perils of the Brecksville Blue Dolphins synchronized swim team, who must do underwater handstands with no hands -- legs extended, toes pointed -- then smile when they finally come up for air, regardless of whether their lips are red or blue. Maybe that's why it's the only competitive synchro team in the area. The 20 or so girls practice in a public pool with an architectural grandeur reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, complete with the occasional white-tailed deer peeking in the bay windows.

"We have to do underwaters," sighs 15-year-old Lauren Stankie, also a lifter. "Swim across the pool and back without taking a breath. The first time I made it, when I came up, I had a headache and was seeing stars."

Now in ninth grade, Lauren's been sculling since third, after her next-door neighbor announced she couldn't play because she had to go to synchro practice. Her neighbor has since retired, but Lauren's competed all over the country and has the butterflies (as in stomach, not stroke) to prove it.

Before a meet, "I worry," she says. "Can I make it through the routine? Because it's hard. Especially when you have lifts. Will I find the person? Will I be able to push them up? And worrying about holding your breath, and if you're gonna die or not."

Lauren, who's statuesque, got bored with lap swimming and wouldn't have fit in too well in gymnastics, where pixies rule -- and even the uneven bars are shy of six feet high. But in synchro, the pool has to be at least nine feet deep, so everybody's the same height in the sense that nobody can touch bottom.

On the slighter side is Hilary Homenko, a national contender who's usually a liftee and has a solo choreographed to the theme from The Island of Dr. Moreau.

"The first few times you try out a lift, it's scary," she says. "You might fall, and you don't know who you're gonna actually land on." Just as long as they're soft and fluffy.

Hilary's mom, Donna, started the Blue Dolphins in September 1993, when the really deep Brecksville pool was brand new and too good to pass up. The team's unofficial den mother, Donna was a vicarious synchronizer in college, going to her roommate's meets and wishing she could daintily heave people over her head. Now, she follows her daughter to meets in New York and Pennsylvania. Since teams are few, they travel far and use all available warm bodies for judges, usually parents or coaches -- not always the most evenhanded lot.

"There's a lot of nepotism going around," notes Martha, who's also going to nationals. "We've had some problems with coaches favoring their teams."

Regionals are coming up in Buffalo, so it's time to finesse their routine. But first: New business. Who's gonna room with whom? (In an insouciant turn, the coaches have lumped all the Sarahs in the "Sarah Room.") Dress nicely when you arrive at the pool. And be polite.

"I would be happier if you guys got fifth and lost gracefully than if you got fourth and cheered and smiled," says 24-year-old coach Christie Bober, who swam for Ohio State's championship synchro team. "You can smile, but not like -- "Wooo!'"

To paint a picture, Julie Kancler, who's also a coach and veteran synchronizer, shares her story of revelry deferred: Her senior year, against Tonawanda in upstate New York, her team won it all, but took their accolades stoically. Then they piled into the station wagon, drove to a nearby parking lot, got out of the car, and screamed their tonsils off.

If that fails, hide. "Put all the little guys around you, so they can't see you smiling."

Actually, Bober cheered so hard once that she fell through the bleachers. "Now, that is not a good example," she laughingly declares. "It's different when it's cutthroat," i.e., Ohio State vs. Stanford for all the marbles, and they won in sudden death. "Fifteen years in a row and four rings -- how would you like to be the class that loses? You wouldn't feel very good!"

One more thing. "Girls, make sure your headpieces are sewn together," Bober instructs. "If you guys have time in the next few days, try and go to Sally Beauty Supply. They have bun foundations [foam doughnuts that keep your updo from unraveling] there."

Once that's secured with a rubber band, advises Kancler, "then the best thing to do is get a hairnet and put it over your hair, and it'll hold all the hairs in place."

Then the sequined headpiece -- sort of like an I Love Lucy pillbox hat, according to Lauren -- covers your bun, supposedly. "Sometimes, during a routine, part of it falls off, and it just kind of hangs on your head" -- the aquatic equivalent of tripping on your train.

But they don't wear all that apparatus in practice, and anyway, it's time to hit the water. Bober taps on the deck with a stick to help the swimmers keep count with the music.

"Travel more here!" she directs, shouting out moves. "Show me the Crane, not a Fishtail! Eiffel Tower, Spin 180. Tell Hilary to get her foot right on the surface. Tell her to hold the Crane a little bit longer -- she's sinking too fast.'"

Sometimes, the girls slip past Bober's gaze and socialize at the pool's edge, rather than refine their Albatrosses or Flower Pots. "Why don't we just go in the hot tub, Julie?" suggests one. Everybody seems to be getting up to go to the bathroom every five minutes, in pairs.

"I've met a lot of nice people, because synchro's not a sport sport," confides Martha, her hair cut in a short bob, so even when the Knox gelatin (which swimmers lacquer on their hair to make it stiff during competition) doesn't take, her 'do won't get in the way. "It's something that I can excel at. I like being in a sport that's not school-related, because I'm so quiet and shy at school, to say the least. I've become more outgoing since grade school, and I think it's because of synchro."

A senior in high school, Martha leads the little girls in a game of sharks and minnows ("synchro freeze tag") and is a center that everyone crowds around. The last time they competed, they stayed in a hotel with a Waffle House restaurant, she says excitedly. Becky Salsbury, Martha's pal on the team, thought Waffle House was skanky, but Martha liked it a lot.

"We went there three times," Martha reminisces. "It was a really small place. There were like three booths. I don't even know if there was a bathroom."

Other activities on road trips include coming up with a pep cheer -- "We just clap and scream. We don't have words," says Becky -- and sewing sequins on their swimsuits.

"We weren't supposed to sew them on right away, to keep the suits' stretch," bluffs Martha, who stitched hers in the car on the way to the meet.

Bober, eyes on the pool, doesn't miss a beat. "You guys were procrastinating."

"We're a bit of procrastinators," Martha admits. "Okay, we felt really dumb."

But the sequins were better than waterlogged-when-wet velvet, admittedly a curiosity. "We were at the meet, and girls on the other teams kept coming up to us, saying "Ooh -- you're wearing velvet," and started rubbing our suits," says Martha. "It was kind of weird. It wasn't that bad, but it stretched out really low in the butt."

Dennis Rodman should have such problems. "Then we have to cake on the makeup, so we look like a Barbie doll," Martha continues, on a roll now. "They always tell us to put more on. "Go put more on! You look so pale!' We get into an argument. They want us to look like Mimi from Drew Carey."

"What?" asks Bober incredulously.

"I said, you want us to look like Mimi from Drew Carey."

"No, no, no. See what I'm wearing now?" Bober points to her lightly mascaraed lashes. "See what I'm wearing now? They think that's a lot of makeup. What I see when [they] put it on: Dead!"

Synchro might have girly trappings, but you gotta be tough, not only to hoist your teammates, but also to beat up the yahoos who make fun of your noseclips -- you try doing loop-de-loops without them! -- and remember every line from that old Saturday Night Live skit in which Martin Short and Harry Shearer played synchro prima donnas who stayed in the shallow end. (Actually, in lieu of saying a pregame prayer or slapping each other with towels, the team watches a tape of that skit before practically every meet.)

"My swim team coach in school makes fun of us all the time," Martha says. "He got tickets to see the Olympic team, and he won't give me any, because I'm in synchro and he doesn't think it's a sport. I try to explain it to him, but he won't listen. We work just as hard!"

Besides, the getups can be glamorous, Lauren admits.

"One time, we did States to "My Country 'Tis of Thee' and "Sweet Home Alabama,' and fun songs like that, and our suits were like we were in a beauty pageant," she says. "We had these really glittery suits, and they had a sash. And each person had a different name, like "Miss Alabama.' And it had mesh up here, like skin, and it had a heart shape, and it was really glittery. Teal, and it was a shimmery material."

When they want to get really fancy, some teams do lights-off routines with candles or glowsticks. Kancler's old team once tried flashlights with colored balloons. She wishes they could try that here, but there's too much light streaming in the windows. But at least they can see the deer.

More by Laura Putre


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