ADRENALIN: Water performance: Synchronised swimming is not for those who are bad at games or hate nose-plugs. Roberta Mock flails to impress

Roberta Mock
Sunday 28 August 1994 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Like most North American teenagers, I was forced to join a sports team at high school. Vincent Massey Secondary School was a cut-throat institution as far as physical pursuits were concerned. Two boys in my year went on to play professional ice-hockey; one girl made the Olympic volley-ball team. Given the competition, I went for more obscure teams. I spent one season on the Junior Volley-ball Cheerleading Squad. Then I found a home on the low-profile synchronised swimming team. It seemed like an easy option. It wasn't.

Nearly 15 years later, I donned nose-plugs and goggles once again. The Exeter Synchro Club kindly lent me the mandatory bathing cap which was ironically emblazoned with the motto 'Talented Bitch'. The coaches seemed amazed that lapsed synchro swimmers differed from out-of-practice cyclists. You can't just leap back into the saddle and competently peddle off.

Even with ears submerged, I could hear my instructor, Carol, hollering 'Push your hips up' and 'Point your toes'. Like dance, synchro requires stamina, physical control, attention to detail and agility, all of which come only with dedication and practice. Despite appearances, it is not simply a matter of floating about and making eccentric arm gestures.

Synchronised swimming first featured as an Olympic sport in 1984, after a lengthy battle to convince the international committee of its technical skill. Prior to 1890, it was known as 'Scientific and Ornamental Swimming' and was performed by men.

Modern synchro only developed with the addition of musical accompaniment in 1925. The variety of movements at that time was rather limited, consisting of four freestyle and four backstroke arm actions occasionally flavoured with butterfly strokes.

Nowadays, those strokes wouldn't get you past the first of five levels in the figure categories. Even the under-10 group I joined was working on grade- one figures like the Eiffel Tower (a half-twist combined spin of 180 degrees underwater). While my 'dolphin' strokes and back-tuck somersaults were reducing my eight-year-old swimming peers to fits of giggles, the flexed, seemingly-disembodied toes of older girls were silently gliding through the water in unison.

We tried a simple routine to a Bryan Adams song: breaststroke, breaststroke, glide, somersault, torpedo, torpedo, flip, breaststroke. Round in a circle we swam. My somersaults emerged facing a different direction on every attempt; my torpedoes resembled dinghies. My hips sagged and my toes were floppy but I felt great.

According to Exeter's head coach, Janice Waters, older teenagers and women occasionally join the club but rarely persevere. As beginners, the only option for them is to join in with the seven-year-olds which can cause some embarrassment. They also don't count on the preparatory warm-up laps round the pool for neglected muscles and the additional training sessions only the younger swimmers can find time for.

My own reservations stem from the goal-centred nature of competitive swimming. I'll buy my own, more modest, bathing cap and return to the pool next week. I don't want to join the Olympic synchro team. I want to be a mermaid.

Exeter Synchro Club meets 7pm, Weds at the Pyramids, Heavitree Rd, Exeter, Devon. ASA (Amateur Swimming Association), Harold Fern House, Derby Square, Loughborough LE11 OAL

(Photograph omitted)

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