Take one to twelve pretty girls, dress them in flashy besequined costumes, put them in a swimming pool, mix a musical accompaniment to their movements and you've got synchronized swimming, a colorful new sport born 20 years ago in Chicago, popularized in California's myriad swimming pools and spread by a dedicated few halfway round the world.
There are some 25,000 active synchronized swimmers in the U.S. today. Eighty percent of all AAU districts have formal synchronized swimming programs, and the sport is catching on elsewhere—in Britain, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, Argentina and Japan. Part of its appeal lies in the comparative ease with which it can be mastered. Practically anyone can learn. Strength is not important. The essentials are rhythm, knowledge of standard water skills and a sense of creativeness in building a routine. Synchronized swimming can best be compared to dancing in water. Grace and coordination of movement characterize a championship synchronized swimmer.
The official AAU Synchronized Swimming Handbook lists 39 basic stunts. Some of them are diagramed on this page. Many of these have several variations. Each stunt is assigned a degree of difficulty, as in diving. The degree-difficulty scale ranges decimally from 0.1 to 2.0. Appropriately, many of the stunts are named for fish (dolphin, swordfish, porpoise, shark, etc.), even if the resemblance in most cases is more metaphorical than realistic.
Though synchronized swimming for fun is essentially an elemental process, competitive synchronized swimming becomes thoroughly complicated. Championship meets require the services of a referee (with assistant), timer, five judges (each with an assistant), three scorers, announcer and a "listener," who pops his head below the surface occasionally to make sure that the underwater loudspeakers (for music, tempo, etc.) are operating correctly.
Judging is similar to that in diving events. Using a fractional scale, the five judges grade both for execution of the routine and for style. Then the mathematicians take over, multiplying performance ratings by difficulty ratings.
Synchronized swimming's rise to popularity in the last decade has been largely the work of Norma Bragstad Olsen, petite blonde Californian. Mrs. Olsen discovered synchronized swimming in Chicago in 1945 and immediately became a zealous crusader in its cause. Since then she has crossed the U.S. 41 times and traveled to Hawaii, Mexico, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and China, holding clinics for instructors and judges as well as competitors. Today she is chairman of synchronized swimming for the AAU.
Norma scored a notable triumph for the sport at the Pan-American Games by collaring Kenneth L. (Tug) Wilson, president of the U.S. Olympics Association and badgering him into watching the synchronized swimming competition. Wilson was unexpectedly impressed. "You know," he said, "I've changed my mind. The control, physical conditioning and coordination those girls showed convince me this is as much a sport as speed swimming and diving." Says Norma: "Let's face it, swimming meets of the past didn't draw anyone...but with the showmanship and pretty girls in brilliant costumes of synchronized swimming, you've got a talking point."