The gems, gel and grit of synchro swimming

Despite all the razzing it suffers for its nose clips and perpetual smiles, the demanding sport of synchronised swimming is on the rise in New Zealand. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

You need to learn a whole new vocabulary when you’re poolside watching the graceful and gutsy sport of synchronised swimming.

There’s gelling and gemming to get your head around – and that’s before the swimmers even get wet; then there’s the barracuda thrusts,  body boosts and ballet legs they execute in the pool. While all looks harmonious and fluid above the water, their legs are furiously doing the 'egg beater' underneath. 

For all the mockery the sport is still susceptible to, synchronised swimming is not only one of the most colourful, but one of the most demanding of all Olympic sports.

It requires stamina, strength and flexibility, and it’s been scientifically proven that synchronised swimmers rank second only to long-distance runners for their aerobic capacity.

You can see it when the swimmers climb out of the pool and onto the podium awaiting the judges scores; their chests heaving and legs quavering as they try to steal back the oxygen they were starved of while upside down, underwater for almost half of their routine.

Concussion is also a very real risk in the sport, from an accidental kick to the head or a mistimed toss of a body in a team routine.

As you walk into a synchronised swimming competition (in this case, the national championships at WestWave in Auckland at the weekend), your senses are assaulted by the sharp tang of chlorine, a blare of music and cheering combined, and a scene of sequins, glittering eye shadow and choreographed splashes.

There were a record 170 girls and young women who competed in this year’s championships. The sport is expanding at an impressive rate in New Zealand: a 20 percent rise in participation in 2017, and another five percent this year.

“That’s quite unusual for a sport that requires a lot of commitment,” says Shirley Hooper, chair of  Synchronised Swimming New Zealand.

It’s not only the dedication of the athletes, but of their parents, who virtually run the sport here.

Mums who are up at 4am to start preparing a glutinous soup, to be painted on the swimmers’ heads to form a slick, hard cap. There’s an actual “gelling room” at the back of the pool, where rice cookers and crockpots brew up the gelatine – and girls line up to have their hair covered in three or four coats of the stinky goo.

At the top of the sport, the training demanded of the athletes is grinding.

Hooper’s daughter, Eva Morris, is 20 and calls herself the ‘grandma’ of the Aquaferns, New Zealand’s synchronised swimming squad. She trains six days a week at BayWave in Mt Maunganui - in the water for three hours on week days, and five hours on Saturdays.

She’s the New Zealand team captain – and the only competitive senior swimmer in the country since her world championship partner Jazzlee Thomas retired this year - but there’s nothing grandmotherly about her. She’s lithe, graceful, strong and driven.

“When you’re young, you only have to be synchronised and look cute – but when you get to this level, it’s about going above what you did in training,” Morris says. “It’s not a sport you can just do – you have to make it your priority.”

Morris, who works for a swimwear supplier when she’s not training, holds a dream of competing at an Olympics; Paris 2024 is her most realistic shot.

She’s come close before – at the 2015 world championships in Russia, when the New Zealand team were just one point off qualifying for the Rio Olympics.

At 20, Aquafern Eva Morris is a veteran of two world championships, but she has Olympic aspirations. Photo: Gail Stent Photography

It’s been 10 years since New Zealand had synchronised swimmers at the Olympics with sisters Nina and Lisa Daniels finished 23rd in the duet at Beijing Olympics. Before them were sisters Lynnette and Katie Sadlier (who’s now the global head of women’s rugby), trailblazers at the 1984 Los Angeles games.

To help New Zealand dive back into the Olympic synchro pool, they’ve roped in an international coach.

Three-time Olympian Lara Teixeira Cianciarulo moved from her native Brazil to work with the Tauranga Synchro club two years ago, and has also taken on the job of national head coach. It was perfect timing, says Cianciarulo says, who’d just competed in her final Olympics, at home in Rio, and decided to retire at 29.

“I’d always had a dream to live overseas, I wanted to improve my English and to coach,” she says. Her husband, Fernando Cianciarulo, was a Brazilian water polo international, and now coaches the Tauranga Boys’ High team. (“We met in the water,” she says, “and we’re both passionate about education through sport.”)

At first, Cianciarulo was fascinated by the way Kiwi kids tried their hand at countless sports.

“I came from a very different philosophy – I was specialising in synchro when I was eight years old. But now I understand how important it is for girls to play more than one sport if they want. I’ve learned to be flexible,” she says.

One of those girls is promising teen Zyleika Pratt-Smith. She’s the top 13-15-year-old synchronised swimmer in the country, but she’s also a talented national swimmer. Earlier in the week, the 14-year-old swam at the New Zealand short course championships, and finished fourth in the women’s 200m individual medley. 

Does Cianciarulo believe the Aquaferns could again make it to the Olympics? “I think so. We’re growing a really good, positive mindset, and we’re aiming for a top world ranking,” she says.

One Kiwi swimmer, in fact, already made it to the last Olympics. Rose Stackpole, who grew up in Auckland and was a New Zealand junior star, made the decision to move to Australia and began competing for them four years ago. She swam for the Aussies at the Rio games in both the team and duet events.

It’s no secret that the Australian synchronised swimmers have a billionaire benefactor - mining magnate Gina Rinehart has poured money into the team over the last few years. The swimmers even performed at her daughter’s wedding. 

Stackpole came home last week to compete in the New Zealand championships, with her Olympic team-mate Amie Thompson.

They performed a highly-artistic and gripping duet to Destiny Child’s Survivor – choreographed by Andrea Fuentes, the most decorated Spanish female Olympian with four synchronised swimming medals.  “She’s the hottest choreographer in the world right now,” Morris says of Fuentes, who’s just signed up as the US national coach.

The Aquaferns’ toughest hurdle is their isolation. In Europe, where the sport is completely dominated by the Russians, there are international competitions weekly on their summer calendar. Here, the national squad members come together every school holidays for 10-day training camps.

The New Zealanders generally have to self-fund their travel overseas with sausage sizzles and movie nights.  But there has been funding recently through the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s national activities programme for the sport's talent development squads.

Next month, the Aquaferns go to Brazil and Argentina to compete in their open championships. Next year, their aim is the world championships in South Korea.

The New Zealand squad put on a display of their team routine to round out the nationals. The swimmers wore shimmering race car-inspired suits, which they’d designed and decorated themselves.

Aquafern Eden Worsley explains how they each stuck on the “1072 Swarovski crystals” in a seven-hour gemming session, which doubled as a team bonding exercise. A little glue could go a long way to helping these young women to the Olympics. 

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