Synchronized Swimming for Dummies

I realize that I am funny to you. The fact that I spent more than 15 years donning sequined headpieces and swimsuits and forcing a smile while wearing noseclips and performing to the music of John Tesh means only one thing in the end: When you finish giggling, you will not be able to suppress the temptation to ask me about all of this alien behavior.

In this situation, there are dumb questions (oh, yes, even here), and there are smart ones. If you find yourself in the company of a former Aquanut, Sculpin, Synchrogator or Aquette while watching Olympic synchronized swimming, I want you to be prepared. Trust me. You will be able to mock with greater aplomb once you have the facts.

Herewith, two lists—questions dumb and smart—to enhance your snarking pleasure and guide you through the first major American network broadcast of synchronized swimming of these 2008 Olympic Games (which, of course, comes in the coveted 12:30-2 a.m. Pacific time slot tonight—Saturday morning, to be precise).

1. Is this a sport?
Compared to what, sailing? Diving? Golf? (Yes, not currently an Olympic event, but petitioning to get in!) Synchronized swimming combines expression with precision, and is one of the most difficult activities known to the human body. It is comparable to gymnastics. It is not remotely comparable to rhythmic gymnastics.

2. Why is there a solo event if it's "synchronized" swimming?
Ah, yes. You feel clever, right? Please consider that a person can be synchronized with a piece of music before you speak of this commonly posed "mind bender."

3. How long can you hold your breath?
Oh, who knows. If I were on a spy mission that required me to swim underwater in order to save the world, I suppose I'd find out exactly how long I can hold my breath. Until then, the basic answer is, "A lot longer than you, and I'm doing gymnastics and supporting myself in 12 feet of water while I'm holding it."

4. Are you a fast swimmer?
Um, no. Synchro is about finesse, man, finesse. I wouldn't want to race a speed swimmer, and a speed swimmer wouldn't want to try holding her legs above water.

5. What's your favorite synchro spoof?
This is a dumb question only because it is so easy. There is but one spoof that, uh, holds any water in the world of synchro. It is, of course, the 1984 "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Martin Short (in a lifejacket, though he's standing in three feet of water) and Harry Shearer point to each other with a sense of profound recognition as they chant, "I know you, I know you." I predict that this parody never, ever will be surpassed, however long humans remain on this watery planet.

1. How do you train?

It's a combination of distance and sprint swimming (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly, mixed with underwater laps), strength training (weight training, Pilates), land conditioning (running) and drills (doing routines, and parts of routines, over and over and over again, until they're perfect, like in classical-music study).

2. What's with the incessant smiling?
Amen. What is with the incessant smiling? The history of synchro goes back to Esther Williams's 1940s Hollywood movies, in which all the women (read: people with few choices beyond homemaker, nurse or teacher) smiled and batted their eyelashes as they stroked feebly through the shallow ends of sound-studio pools. Some evolution is needed. After all, the ancient games featured things like naked wrestlers, and you don't see too much of that in the Olympic venues today.

The sport trivializes itself with silly traditions like the plastered smile and the heavy waterproof makeup. If you must keep the decorative suits, fine. But the only dignified athletic face is a straight one—until the competition is over.

3. Why isn't that American girl wearing noseclips like everybody else?
I know! Christina Jones, one half of the American duet that finished fifth this week in Beijing, does not wear anything to keep the water from going up her nose while she's upside-down underwater. She's one of only a few swimmers known to do this, but it's not unheard of.

One of my high-school teammates once lost her noseclips upon diving in the water during a meet. (This is the mortal fear of every synchronized swimmer, and why we carry extras inside our suits.) She had no choice but to keep going, and to her happy surprise, she discovered that she was able to plug her nose simply by pushing her lip up against it. That's how Jones does it.

It's all about how you're built. You can test this at home. Submerge yourself in the bath, scrunch up your face and tip your head back. I can't do it, but maybe you're one of the lucky few.

4. What's the most difficult move?
Here's a rule: the easiest moves are the ones that look most impressive—formations of swimmers connected together in the shape of a star, for instance. At a slightly higher level, there's the "split rocket": a pair of legs shooting up from underwater, opening into a split position and disappearing again underwater. The former is a move for a 5-year-old, the latter for an 11-year-old.

The reverse is true, too. The hardest moves are the least spectacular. Toughest of all? Straight legs out of the water up to the upper thighs, the board-flat body spinning perfectly on its vertical axis (no tipping or leaning) while maintaining its height. This is as exciting to watch as an upright plank of wood rotating on a Lazy Susan. But it's the triple lutz of synchro.

5. Are there any men in synchronized swimming?
There are, but they sit on the sidelines. A few years ago, the American Bill May—a truly incredible athlete—was one of the best synchronized swimmers in the world. Because of the rules, he was forbidden from competing in the Olympic Games in a sport he'd trained in all his life. It was a disgrace. May was a fighter. I grew up in a town not far from him and watched him endure and improve despite years of discouragement and ridicule.

The rules need to change. They're arbitrary and connected to an old-fashioned view of synchronized swimming as the pastime of bathing beauties. Like figure skating, synchronized swimming should feature both men and women, sometimes together, sometimes separately—always in sync.