Feature story: Pursuing perfection

Aquamaids club sends synchronized swimmers to nationals

Accordion music plays on speakers as eight swimmers from the Santa Clara Aquamaids Synchronized Swimming Club simultaneously mime with their hands while treading water, hold their legs in the air with heads submerged and lift teammates skyward -- all while trying to hold a smile.

"We get teased about smiling," head coach Chris Carver said during a Monday practice. "But would you want us to look like we're in agony?"

It's all part of the routine Santa Clara's "Circus" team will perform at the national championships in Ohio on June 22. Circus will be joined by "Irish," another Aquamaids team for 13- to 15-year-olds.

Circus and Irish qualified for the nationals by finishing first and third, respectively, in regional qualifications on May 15.

"We were kind of scared; we didn't know if we were going to make it," said Irish member and Gunn High School freshman Nicky Schmidt.

Aquamaids has more than 70 swimmers, including eight from Palo Alto, ranging in age from 8 to 22. Swimmers compete as soloists, duets, trios or in teams of eight.

Swimmers wear makeup and colorful suits that complement their movements, performing routines to music.

Routines are judged based on the difficulty, execution and synchronization of poses, movements and lifts as well as artistic impression, which is where the smiling comes in.

"It kind of comes naturally after a while," said Elle Billman, a Circus member and Palo Alto High School sophomore. "But it is sometimes hard to hold a smile when you're panting for air."

Billman is a "flyer," who is lifted by other team members while she holds a position or jumps.

Being the most visible position, flyers have added pressure to execute.

"You have to make sure the lift works, especially in competition, because if it doesn't ... it's pretty obvious," said Billman, who is also a member of the United States national team for 13- to 15-year-olds.

On Monday, team members practiced individual parts of their routines over and over again.

"It's a perfection-based sport. There's always more you can do," said coach Kendra Zanotto, a former Aquamaid who won a bronze medal with the United States national team in the 2004 Olympics.

Girls sometimes laughed at their mistakes and bantered with their coaches.

But coaches were blunt when giving their "corrections."

"I'm not going to let you off this lift," Zanotto told Rachel Ye, who was struggling in her role as flyer to pull off a pose. "You're going to get it one way or another."

Billman said someone new to the sport may find the bluntness off-putting but that the directness was necessary.

"You kind of get used to it. ... They can't be like 'Oh, someone was off count,'" she said, "because then everyone's, like, 'OK, who was off count?'"

Two physically demanding skills swimmers must learn are "eggbeaters," a technique to tread water, and "sculls," a technique that allows swimmers to have their legs in the air while the rest of their body is submerged.

The public doesn't recognize the physical demands of the sport, swimmers, coaches and parents agreed.

"Your core strength is huge in this sport," coach Robin McKinley said.

Teams practice up to four hours a day, six days a week. The time commitment leads to girls staying up late, waking up early or finding time in the middle of the day to finish their homework.

"I actually have a desk in the car," said Maki Yasuda, an eighth-grader at Jordan Middle School. "So I study and do homework in the car on the way to swimming and on the way back."

What keeps young teenagers in a sport that demands so much time?

Friendship with teammates was a common response.

"Because we spend so many hours as a team, we get close to everyone," said Aimee Xu, a ninth-grader from Fremont.

Many of the girls said they were inspired to join the Aquamaids after seeing one of the exhibitions the club holds every year on Memorial Day.

"I just liked all the makeup, the swimsuits, all those preparations," Yasuda said.

The Aquamaids club was founded in 1964 and has been a major force in synchronized swimming, producing teams and swimmers that have won national and international competitions.

Coach McKinley started swimming with the Aquamaids when she was 10 and was on the United States national teams that won the 1973 and 1975 World Aquatics Championships.

She said the sport has changed since she competed, with patterns today being tighter and lifts much more elaborate.

"Nowadays it's gotten very acrobatic," she said.

Though synchronized swimming may not appear to be a contact sport on the surface, swimmers aren't immune from injury.

Zanotto said the repetition and flexibility the sport demands can lead to strained shoulders and knees, and spectators don't see impacts that occur under water.

"They're getting punched or kicked, very similar to water polo," Zanotto said.

All team members are administered baseline neurological tests meant to aid a diagnosis in case of a head injury. In the last two years, one swimmer has been sidelined by a possible concussion, Zanotto said.

Swimmers aren't the only ones that make a time commitment to the club.

In order to supplement the $100 monthly dues, parents are required to volunteer 25 hours each month at a bingo hall owned and operated by the Aquamaids. Parents who volunteer more have their dues waived.

Aquamaids board president Bob Anger said the hall earns $2 million a year in net profit, which pays for coaches, travel and pool time.

Alicia Barton, whose 15-year-old daughter, Claire, is on the Junior national team, said she spends around 10 hours a week at the hall.

Barton said the large number of regulars assuaged her initial misgivings about the gambling aspect of the hall.

"When you get to know the clientele, it's a social habit they've planned (financially) for," she said.

While most swimmers will miss occasional school days when traveling to meets, Barton said her daughter will miss five weeks to train for and compete at the Junior world championships in Greece this September.

As a result, she was unable to enroll in some honors classes, but Barton supports her daughter's commitment to the sport.

"Follow it now while you have (the passion) and you're young and healthy and have all this support," she said.

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