As Jamaican Synchronized Swimming Grows, Swimmers Get Love From Beyoncé
Synchronized swimming wasn’t Nyouka Baugh’s first choice. As the 17-year-old recalls, she originally wanted to take up another sport before getting a suggestion that would change the trajectory of her athletic aspirations.
“From a young age I wanted to do gymnastics but the [synchronized swim] team used to train at a hotel where my aunt used to work. And when she would be passing the pool area to go home in the evening, she would see the girls training in the pool and doing gymnastics-like stuff in the water,” Baugh explained. This prompted her aunt to encourage her mom to enroll her daughter in the class.
It wasn’t exactly gymnastics, but it would be a happy medium. The suggestion was also born out of practicality. Baugh lives in Port Antonio, the capital of Portland, a parish on the northeastern coast of Jamaica. Port Antonio is approximately 60 miles from Kingston, which is the largest city in Jamaica and where Baugh would need to go to find a gymnastics class.
The rest as they say is history. Baugh has been a member of the Island Aquatics Synchro Club for 10 years now.
The group is helmed by Olga Novokshchenova, a Russian two-time Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming, whose heart led her to the Caribbean island. She married Jamaican freediver David Lee and settled in Port Antonio. The Olympic champion drew interest from clubs in Kingston but the distance would be too far to relocate her family. “I had to start my own club or my own team here. In 2007 I started with one swimmer and then slowly started growing more and more,” she said.
Jamaica may be a small island nation but it is a powerhouse in Olympic competition. They have won an impressive 78 medals at the Games with all but one coming from track and field events.
The country has produced athletics giants like Merlene Ottey, Veronica Campbell, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and of course Usain Bolt. As coach Michael Carr once put it, “To run is a cultural thing for Jamaicans — as Brazil sees [football] that's how we see track and field.” This is in stark contrast to aquatic sports which are much less recognized and lauded — an irony for a country surrounded by water. And unlike athletics which has been contested since the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, artistic swimming, as it is known in Olympic circles, was only introduced during the Summer Olympics at the 1984 Games.
“We’re not very popular,” admits Novokshchenova. “I think it’s because synchronized swimming is one of the most difficult sports and it requires many hours because we do training in the gym and in the pool, and we do all the stretching. You must be flexible like a gymnast and strong like a powerlifter. And then you have to go in the water and swim as fast as a speed swimmer and then we start doing synchronized swimming. So, it has been a challenge for us to keep the swimmers in the sport but we're trying to grow the numbers now.”
Another challenge has been accessibility. The only public pools available are in Kingston. Novokshchenova has done everything from using a tiny pool at a marina, using hotel pools, private pools of friends, until she finally sold her Moscow apartment to build her own.
Now the girls travel to her home for training sessions which poses another obstacle by way of transportations costs. The fees are kept to a minimum to cover pool maintenance and ensure that the girls do not drop out due to lack of funding. As the sole club on the island, there is virtually no competition for the swimmers which necessitates overseas travel.
The club is completely self-financed through fundraising shows and donations which allows participation in select meets. They have acquitted themselves well, competing at marquee events like the Central American and Caribbean Championships and the UANA Pan American Synchronized Swimming Championships. In 2017, at a Junior Olympic and Intermediate Championship in Orlando Florida, the team nabbed several medals including gold in the duets category for Laila Bailey and Joydayne White, and a silver and bronze for Baugh in the duets and solo categories respectively. Their ultimate goal is to add to Jamaica’s Olympic medal count but that seems very unlikely.
Olympic spots in artistic swimming are limited — only 10 teams and 22 duets qualify. The Jamaicans’ best hope appeared to be a duet of Baugh and her former partner, until the latter migrated. They don’t have enough athletes in the same age group to compete as a team and there are no solo categories. Asked about their Olympic future, Baugh was frank. “To be honest right now that vision is kind of blurry.”
Attracting and retaining talent would go a long way towards resuscitating their fledgling Olympic aspirations and this past summer they may have gotten a boost in the form of global attention from an unlikely source.
The Beyoncé Effect
Nicole Chin Shue was part of the first synchronized swimming group to compete for Jamaica in the late nineties. She came up under the tutelage of Katherine Lim-Sang, a competitive swimmer who applied the techniques she learned from clinics to teach the mechanics of synchro. Shue eventually migrated to Miami which later led to her involvement with the Aqua Lillies, a professional synchronised swimming and dance company. Shue had returned to Jamaica and was giving private swim lessons when her manager reached out with the opportunity of a lifetime in September 2019.
“She said, ‘Hey there's an award-winning musical artist who is seeking deep toned synchronized swimmers,’” Shue remembered. She ignored the email, hoping to focus on building a life in Jamaica but the manager was persistent. When Shue found out the artist in question was “Queen Bey,” she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And when told they were trying to find other girls of color — a rarity in the sport — she immediately recommended her compatriots. “I said well the Portland girls are here.”
What followed next was a whirlwind trip to California to shoot scenes for Beyoncé’s “Black is King,” a musical film which is a visual companion to the 2019 album “The Lion King: The Gift.” The appearance has garnered some much-needed publicity for the team but only time will tell whether it increases participation. So far, so good. Observed Novokshchenova, “Before the virus started, I had nine advanced swimmers and two beginners and after we came back from quarantine, I got 11 more young girls just learning to swim. They hopefully will continue to do synchro.”
Baugh still can’t believe their good fortune. “When we were filming, I had no idea it was part of “Black is King.” I thought it was for the one music video, so I had no idea until it was released. I feel really honored to be one of the persons that was actually part of the project.”
The 11th grader has her sights set on receiving a scholarship to a university where she can pursue synchronized swimming and maybe perform professionally. Baugh also wants Jamaicans to put some respect on her sport’s name.
“I just really want the country to know that there is actually this sport here. By going to a lot of competitions abroad and of course when we get medals we come on the news, so that's a good thing. I think it inspires a lot of people.”