Want to be an Olympian? My Summer Games is a column that chases glory at the rec level.
I've always viewed synchronized swimming as the figure skating of the summer games – not my usual type of sport. So trying it out would be a true challenge: Could I smile while sculling, holding one leg in the air with perfectly pointed toes?
Sheilagh Croxon, coach of Toronto's Granite Synchro club and a Canadian Olympic coach, invited me to an Ontario team skills camp for 40 provincial level athletes aged 9 to 15.
What did I need to bring? A bathing suit, swim cap, goggles and nose clip. (Thankfully no heavy makeup was required.)
I wondered whether the makeup, nose clips and sparkly bathing suits gave the sport a bad rap.
"People think that it is more of an art form belonging in the entertainment world, rather than a sport requiring the core strength, endurance and flexibility that it does demand," says Mary Dwyer, the executive director of Synchro Swim Ontario. "Synchro has been tested and proven to be among the top sports demanding the greatest aerobic capacity."
She and the other coaches would soon show me just how taxing it is.
After some strenuous (for me) warm-up lengths, our first coach of the day, Jessica Chase, a two-time Olympian and bronze medalist, put us through our paces, starting with a body boost exercise, in which you hang onto the edge of the pool, submerge and then pull and push yourself up out of the water until your torso is above the surface repeatedly. There was barely a second to breathe in between dunks.
That weird, face-distorting nose clip became my new best friend, preventing me from getting a nose full of water.
The girls and I then moved into the middle of the deep end for the next step – submerging ourselves for a count of seven, before bursting up out of the water at number eight (Ms. Chase tapped the metal ladder so we could hear the tempo underwater). It was hard enough staying submerged, let alone "boosting" out of the water to waist level (which I never quite reached).
Out of breath, I was thankful for the rest as we walked around the deck to our next station. We'd only just begun and I had already had a significant workout.
Back in the pool, we went for "ballet legs," where, in a "layout" position, you hold your body straight and flat along the water surface while sculling with your hands.
I could manage that, but as soon as we were asked to lift one leg up, I sank like a rock. Ms. Croxon also reminded me I needed to point my toes. Doing so, I immediately fell victim to a calf cramp.
By 90 minutes in, I was waterlogged and tired. I wasn't thirsty though; I had swallowed my fair share of pool water.
I was concentrating so hard doing eggbeater lengths while waving my arms in sync with the others that my leg cramps suddenly came back with a vengeance.
Not wanting to wimp out, I fought through it. Just then the coach pointed to me and yelled "nice smile!" (At least I think that's what she said, hard to tell with a cap covering your ears and foggy swim goggles). It's funny how a grimace of pain can pass as a lovely synchro smile!
That's when I called it a day. I was thoroughly exhausted. All the girls at the camp were in for a full three days of both pool and dry-land skills. I had managed a little less than two hours.
As my muscles ached for the next few days, I could only imagine what the physical and mental demands of this sport might be at the Olympic level.
As Ms. Croxon said, "Synchro swimmers need to have the endurance of a middle-long-distance runner, the flexibility of a gymnast, co-ordination of a dancer, the core strength of a gymnast/diver, power and grace."
While I'm not sure this is the sport for me (I'm more of a "grunt sport" type), I'm in awe of people who can move up and down the pool in complex formations in perfect sync while pretty much underwater for four minutes.