That synch-ing feeling
by Catherine Szabo
For 60 to 90 seconds at a time, Aquabelles such as Kristine Irwin have a unique view of the world.
It’s blue, upside-down, and, save for the constant metallic ticking sound, it’s quiet.
When it comes time to perform, the quiet will be replaced with music pumped in through an underwater speaker, but right now while practicing, the ticking sound helps with counting.
In these minute to minute-and-a-half intervals, Irwin and her teammates are holding their breath to perform some of their synchronized swimming moves.
“I’ve heard some girls compare it to holding your breath while sprinting,” Irwin, 17, said. “It’s an aerobic sport, so you’re using all your muscles, but you’re also holding your breath, so it’s pretty difficult.”
While the sport may be challenging, Irwin, as well as her tier seven junior girls teammates Braley Traub, 17, and Stefanna Spoletini, 17, have each been swimming for 10 years.
“We know what’s hard and what’s not,” Irwin said with a laugh.
In an e-mail, Aquabelles head coach Jenn Tregale said these athletes train six days a week, for an average of 24-30 hours a week. This training includes both land training to improve elements such as flexibility, and pool training, all to prepare for the five competitions they participate in yearly. The age of a swimmer will affect the number of hours she spends in the pool.
“Our weekends are really long — we train six hours a day, every week,” Traub said, adding that time includes “extra time,” when a swimmer works on a duet or solo routine separate from her team routine.
Tregale said that depending on the abilities of a swimmer, some may swim up to four routines: a solo, duet, team and combination routine.
Routines are between three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half minutes, choreographed to music that is played on a regular sound system, as well as an underwater speaker, so that the swimmers can hear it even when they’re submerged.
“For a solo or duet, the athletes must love the music themselves so they can swim with passion and determination all year long,” Tregale said.
“Solos generally swim to slower music, duets can be a bit more upbeat for audience appeal,” she continued. “For teams, we generally pick stronger music for the older girls.”
Some cues may come from the music; counting repeatedly, usually to eight, acts as the glue that keeps the team in time.
Not only is each girl responsible for staying in synch with her teammates, each is responsible for a small part in the success of combined figures such as lifts or boosts.
Success in those highlights isn’t always guaranteed though, and Traub explained that her worst injury came from practicing a lift at a training camp last summer.
“I was fully out of the water, and someone else was standing on me, and it (the lift) started to fall a little bit, and when I tried to save it, something slipped in my back,” she said, adding that she was out of the water for four weeks with a slipped disc before nationals.
“Mostly with our sport, it’s odd things like that, or chronic injuries — overworking the shoulders and knees and stuff,” Irwin added.
Despite its physical demands and sometimes bizarre injuries, Tregale said that she has seen a rise in popularity of about 150 per cent over the past season; the club currently works with 71 competitive swimmers.
“Synchro has its ups and downs,” she said. “Recently, there has been an increase in numbers due to the great results Canada is achieving on the international level.”
Girls can start swimming with the Aquabelles between the ages of 6-8, and start a competitive career at age 8. The team trains at the Talisman Centre.
“At the beginning of a synchro career, it is more about fun and learning skills than anything else,” Tregale said. “Due to the great coaches we have and the excellent skills the girls learn, they have success as well.”
Older, over-18 athletes used to swim with the club, Tregale said, but Synchro Canada recently restructured its national team program, and the top 24 synchro athletes now train at the Centre of Excellence in Montreal.
“When the girls turn 18, they decide if they can do swimming and school together,” she said. “Most say yes. Some of these athletes choose to leave the city to go to school in other provinces or the U.S.A.”
Post-secondary institutions, including the University of Calgary, have their own synchronized swimming teams, and compete in the Canadian University Synchro Swim League Westerns, a competition in which the U of C recently placed first.
They competed against the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria.
“I don’t believe anyone brought [the idea of a synchro team] forward,” said Kyle Henry, events co-ordinator for Cougar Athletics, adding that the MRU swim team folded in 2004.
“The one thing, possibly, would be a Mount Royal club,” he continued. “They play under the Mount Royal name, but they’re not associated with the Cougars.”
Mount Royal is still some time away from joining the Canadian Inter-University Sport, Henry said, and Mount Royal would focus on moving and funding its current teams first.
“A lot of schools will tend to focus on their core sports, and then as they’re able to get those under control and have success with those programs, they’ll look at expanding elsewhere,” he said.
“The U of C has one of the best university synchro teams in Canada, so it would be good for Mount Royal to maybe challenge them,” Traub said.