Some of us were horse girls. Some of us were Lisa Frank girls. I was a mermaid girl, and so, a few years ago, my inner child and I made our pilgrimage to the ultimate mermaid-girl destination: Weeki Wachee Springs, an enchanting roadside attraction in Florida where real-life sirens perform daily. The dim underground theater was bustling with energetic kids and their weary parents — until the curtains went up and four swimmers came into view through the glass walling off the spring. They began a choreographed dance, weaving their fishtails expertly around each other, spinning and twisting together as a single entity. The air tubes underwriting the routine looked like just another extension of their bodies. With each breath, they’d rise to perform a trick and then descend under streams of bubbles. All 35 minutes were mesmerizing.
The Weeki Wachee mermaids are not synchronized swimmers, exactly, but they’re close. And they offered me my first glimpse of what synchronized swimming could be. Before my visit to Weeki Wachee, I was only passively aware of the sport. If I thought of it, I pictured a circling throng of women in 1950s-style swimsuits and floral swim caps. But I’ve come to realize that synchro (as the swimmers say) is so much more than that. To succeed at synchronized swimming, you need the lung capacity and speed of a diver, the strength and flexibility of a gymnast, the pep and coordination of a cheerleader, and the rhythmic timing of a dancer. I’m calling it: Synchro is the best sport you’re not watching.
Consider this free routine from Spain’s national team at the 2012 Olympics: The eight swimmers start the way a ballet company might, marching onstage in two lines before turning to form a staggered tableau. The swimmers stretch out their arms and bend their legs to form a pair of fish ready to dive in — and then, from that position, they do.
Less than ten seconds after the first swimmers hit the water, they perform their first stunt, assembling underwater to vault one of their teammates into a backflip. And that’s, like, the least insane trick they do! At one point, one swimmer is held up by two others in a backbend, and then a fourth dives over them. At no point do any of their feet ever touch the bottom of the pool, by the way — that’s against synchro rules. They regularly dip themselves upside down, tracing shapes in the air with their legs while keeping their torsos suspended in the water. And holding their breath. And keeping their eyes open in chlorine. They do all of this with swift, almost robotic precision that somehow still scans as fluid as they cut through the water. Can you even imagine the core strength?
Synchronized swimming hit its peak popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, although it didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1984. (Before that, it was included as a “demonstration sport,” meaning it was shown at the Olympics but didn’t receive medals.) Over the last ten years, the sport’s governing bodies have made some radical changes, likely in an effort to get the attention these incredible swimmers deserve. The first wave came in 2015, when synchro’s governing body, World Aquatics (then the Fédération Internationale de Natation, or FINA), announced that for the first time, it would include mixed-gender technical and freestyle duets at the World Aquatics Championships — one of the major, and previously women-only, Olympic qualifying events. Two years later, the same organization renamed the sport artistic swimming, and in 2022, it introduced a brand-new scoring system. That rubric aimed to make the sport fairer and less subjective, mirroring those used in gymnastics and figure skating.
All this modernizing reads as an effort to get synchro on the same footing as those more popular sports. The incredible amount of skill it takes often gets overlooked, perhaps in part because, being performers as well as athletes, synchronized swimmers manage to make it look easy. And yet each routine involves a stunning level of athleticism and the mastery of complex choreography. Each has a theme and a narrative, and according to one swimmer I know, those usually spring from the beautiful, freaky minds of the coaches and their team. Synchronized swimmers might take dance or acrobatics classes to help draw inspiration for their movements in the water. A routine choreographed to tango music, for example, calls for tango instruction. A particularly acrobatic one might mean a few visits to circus school. All that work across genres is evident in the finished product. Take this 2021 display by Australia’s Olympic team, for example — they’re doing about three different sports at once:
Or check out this recent banger from the U.S. national team, which hasn’t qualified for the Olympics in over a decade. But this year, there’s a strong chance they will. In July, they won their first medal (silver!) at the world championships since 2007 with a dynamic, purportedly Amazonian-themed routine. I lost count of how many flips they did, but they never lost their pizzazz:
Between its induction as an Olympic sport and 2015’s loosening of the gender parameters, synchronized swimming only allowed women to compete at higher levels. But as soon as men were allowed to participate, 44-year-old Bill May came out of athlete retirement after a career with Cirque du Soleil and joined Team USA. You can see him there, splashing around on the perimeter and maintaining the enthusiasm and energy that marked his lauded but limited early career; with this performance, he became the first American man to win a world championship medal. At the same championships, Team USA won bronze in the team technical event with a Michael Jackson tribute performance that saw them moonwalking upside down, among other feats of hip flexibility:
While Team USA hasn’t qualified for any Olympic team events yet — they’ll have their final chance to at the Doha World Aquatics Championships in February — two of its members, Ruby Remati and Megumi Field, have qualified for duet events and are both rising stars to watch. Also worth watching is Anita Alvarez, the team’s most decorated Olympic athlete. Here she is performing solo:
The close crop of this particular video makes it difficult to catch the technical athleticism of the routine, but it does capture Alvarez’s ferocity and the total command she has over her placement in the water, like it’s holding her up rather than resisting her movement. And she takes you on an emotional journey, her gestures undulating between fluid and explosive. This is pure drama, baby; a gorgeously strange blend of emotional storytelling and physical prowess. What more could you want from the summer Olympics?