The Try Out - Part One - August 2019
(Introducing you to one of my favorite PLACES - a swimming pool)
As I neared the high school, my thoughts were no longer confident or curious. Rather they were anxious, and was that a bit of tummy upset I was feeling? I was early and sat in the car with gurgling uncertainty. I could just drive away. Or, show up and say, this isn’t going to work. And as I looked around, which door was I to enter?
At 5:45pm I grabbed my swim bag and walked around the building, seeing a sign that indicated the pool entrance. A sigh of relief. One uncertainty was clarified, handled, no longer on my mind.
I checked in with a girl at the desk about where I was to go. She was kind and offered information. Did she sense anxiety on my face, in my voice? Another deep breath and I found myself doing some self-talk.
“Susan, remain curious. You have come this far. See it through. They are expecting you and know a little about you from your inquiring email to the coach. They know you are 70 years old and that it has been years since you have done this sport.”
Another of my voices joined in, “But they don’t know that when you tried to do a somersault underwater a week ago, you got dizzy and disoriented. This could be a deal breaker. This probably won’t be more than a one-time thing. Just get through it.”
I located the locker room and started to put my suit on.
This curiosity around synchronized swimming started a few years ago. On the plane to Barcelona I watched a movie, Swimming with Men, a comedy and sweet story about men in England who gathered for a support group by doing synchronized swimming. An odd mix of men - professional, blue collar, and one with a criminal background – who found a love of this sport and in so doing, a caring community. A more recent reminder was seeing an investment commercial on television, a woman joining a synchronized swim club in her retirement. I watched with interest.
Synchronized swimming was not new to me. When I was in 5th grade, I joined a group at the YWCA. As the youngest member, I looked up to the older girls who so beautifully executed the skills and stunts of this sport. Brigette was my hero. She was in high school. Our parents knew each other, and she drove me to practice each week. I remember learning to hold my breath under water while doing a multiple person dolphin. I must have competed, because I have a medal, but the memory is distant and cloudy. What I do remember is loving to swim gracefully to music while creating formations with the other swimmers.
When I accepted my first job out of college as the Women’s and Girls’ Coach at a brand-new YMCA in Michigan, I introduced the community to synchronized swimming. My technique and expertise were limited, but by purchasing the 1972 Official Synchronized Swimming Handbook that instructed how to do each stunt, I took on the role as their coach.
Since 1972, this handbook has traveled with me. In the many moves I have made, it was always packed in a box, never tossing as a finished part of my life. My nose clips as well. They were tucked into my jewelry box as if waiting for another opportunity.
As my 70th birthday neared, I began thinking of what to explore in this new decade? With years of competitive swimming behind me, I was ready for something new. Swimming laps was part of my current fitness program where I frequently included a bit of synchronized swimming at the end of a work-out. Synchronized swimming would be a fun challenge! I began my search to find a team. Was there a master’s synchronized swim club in my area? I discovered the Mad City Aqua Stars and sent an email to the coach who said come for a try out.
So here I was, in the locker room getting into my swimsuit. A woman entered, taking the locker next to mine.
“I’m Barb. You must be Susan. We are so excited to have you here.” Barb, I learned, is the mother of the coach, also the seamstress of the show suits for competition. Tonight, she was asking each one to try on their suit for size and fit before the final seams were stitched. A competition in Mississippi was coming up. As more of the women entered the locker room, they introduced themselves to me. I liked them immediately. Women of all shapes, sizes and ages. Their names, Nell, Jane, Anne, Beth, grounded me as did their kind and gracious spirits. As I listened to their conversations, I was also aware how knowledgeable and invested they were in this sport.
Barb continued. “I just started two years ago.” She paused and smiled, “You know, if you join, I will no longer be the oldest member of the club.” I smiled at this exuberant woman and felt welcomed.
I learned one woman had a baby two months ago. A nursing mother, this required a challenge in the bust section of her competition suit. Several women had been on synchronized swimming clubs in high school or college. One had joined in the last two years because her daughter was on the teen team. They wanted to know what club I had been on.
“I don’t think we were even called a club. It was just a group at the YWCA in the early 1960’s," I replied.
Once suits were donned, we entered the pool and jumped into the water. We were asked to swim laps for four minutes. No problem. Lap swimming was in my bones. I had this. A float formation with the women on the master’s team was next. I slipped into place and listened to the calls from the coach.
“Head to feet. Support the ankles of the athletes on either side of you. Pull your strength in and hold, then when I give the count, extend. Let’s see if we can move this accordion into a circle.”
As I supported Nell and Beth’s ankles, I was overcome with a sense of community. I felt the responsibility to be strong in my own body to support a neighbor on either side.
While the group continued to work on their competition choreography, I moved away to test my question around dizziness. Pulling myself into an upside-down stunt, I was surprised to experience no disorientation. What I noted was the vast depth of the pool full of light and the voice of a capable coach giving cues to her athletes from the underwater speaker. Comforted and astonished, I tried more stunts, focusing on the wall to keep my neck and back straight, rather than looking at the bottom of the pool. I found myself in a zone, my body remembering the intricacies of this sport.
“You have an impressive double ballet leg. Wow, I can’t do that,” said the voice of one of the two teen swimmers assigned to work with me while the others were practicing their routine. The two of them had been most instructive and supportive, teaching from the side of the pool and occasionally joining me in the water to demonstrate.
“Susan, you’ve still got it.” Our coach gave me a smiling thumbs up.
I felt encouraged.
As I continued to work with my teen coaches, I found myself eager, trusting my cellular memory of synchronized swimming from so many years ago, pushing my limits. I also discovered that I had much to learn, like the basics. While I might be able to execute a more difficult stunt, the basics of synchronized swimming, support sculling and eggbeater kicks, were a struggle. My mind was trying hard to understand and communicate to the moving parts of my body. This would take a while.
“The eggbeater kick just clicked for me a month ago,” offered Jane. “When it comes it will be natural and easy. Like riding a bike.”
I was unaware of time until I realized I was cold. Looking at the clock, we had been in the water for two hours. The practice was over. My try out was over! The uncertainties I felt two hours ago were gone. I knew the faces and voices of athletes passionate about an obscure sport called synchronized swimming. I also knew I had fallen in love once again with the grace, beauty, and power in this sport and within myself.
“We would love to have you join us, Susan” I heard the voice of Barb. “Join us in Mississippi. We are still working on the routine and I can whip up another swimsuit in no time.”
I could not sleep that night. Excitement and wonder filled the places that sleep was to claim. I began synchronized swimming as the youngest on a team. Now I would be the oldest. Somehow this seemed perfect.