Louise Wing is direct and earthy, a physically astonishing 72-year-old with a never-say-die Yankee brio. Her husband, Fred, is a cool, flinty man of 79. Louise likes concerts on PBS and garden salads. Fred prefers the shoot-'em-ups and cheeseburgers with raw onions. They have been married for so long that like the old bluegrass song says, they have twined together, the red rose and the white. "Fred and I get along all right," says Louise. "Over 40 years, he sort of grows on you."
Aging isn't the only thing the Wings do gracefully. These sturdily self-sufficient septuagenarians are two of the most accomplished masters synchronized swimmers in the world. Louise, who didn't start competing until she was 57, has won 16 national masters' solo titles in 16 tries. She racked up a perfect 100 last summer at the World Masters Championships in Rio de Janeiro, outscoring every other swimmer in the meet and winning three gold medals. And despite the fact that fearless Fred wouldn't get into the pool with Louise until 1984, the Wings have won their division of the national mixed championships six years running.
A quintessential New Englander who learned to tread water in the Charles River in Boston, Fred had been quietly disdainful of the sport of synchronized swimming. It took some time to get him involved. When he retired as a government contracting officer in 1980, Louise gave him a membership at the Jewish Community Center in Marblehead, Mass., where she taught classes in synchronized swimming. Fred hardly showed up during the first few years. He came in once to swim laps in '82, and a few more times in '83. The next year he decided he would rather sync than swim. Tired of lugging Louise's equipment and waiting around for her at events, he showed up at one of her classes and climbed into the pool. That was the last time he called the sport wimpy. "I hadn't realized it was so difficult," he says. "You need tremendous strength, endurance and breath control."
Louise may have learned to hold her breath playing the French horn, which she studied at the Juilliard School of Music, in New York City, in the early 1950s. She choreographs her three-minute solos to passages from Dvoràk, Richard Strauss and Mozart. Fred is more of an up-tempo guy. He likes Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Irving Berlin. "In duets, we pretty much stick to '40s music," says Louise. "That's what Fred relates to."
April 7, 1991
Hair combed straight back and parted in the middle, Fred pokes around the cluttered living room of the Wings' raised ranch house on the shore of Sluice Pond in Lynn, Mass. He's hunting for his glasses. "Fred has three sets," says Louise. "One is for reading, one is for distance." The other she calls his Big Bugs, for driving.
"You make me sound very methodical," Fred says, protesting.
"Well, you are!"
Louise has jammed her hands into the pockets of her warmup outfit. Her hair is cut into a gray helmet that's almost her hallmark. She gestures to the ribbons, medals and trophies spread on a table amid stacks of magazines and piles of curios. "I've got lots of paperwork," Louise says. She's the administrator of the New England Synchronized Swimming Association, responsible for registering every area swimmer and sanctioning every meet.
Louise was born in Seattle, and she hasn't stopped swimming since she left the amniotic fluid. When she was almost two, she waded into Lake Michigan on a family outing and headed for Canada. Her mother, a nonswimmer, screamed. A bystander dived in and pulled Louise out. "I was so mad at him," she says, "I beat on his chest until he put me down."
Her family moved to Arlington Heights, Mass., a couple of years later, and one day her mother took her to the beach at City Point, on Massachusetts Bay. This time Louise headed for Spain. Fortunately another bystander snared her. She beat on his chest, too.
"I've been to Canada many times," she says wistfully. "But I never did make it to Spain."
Back then, swimming was not for proper young ladies: It wasn't until she was 10 that a local YWCA opened, with a pool for girls to use. Though she excelled in school at science, her father, a research physicist, advised her against going to MIT. "Women work three times as hard," he said, "for one third the pay." So she went to Sargent College at Boston University, and earned a degree in phys ed. Lured by a newly built pool, she did graduate work at Wellesley. Her 129-page master's thesis was titled The Mechanics and Kinesthesiology of the Half-Gainer. It's now buried somewhere beneath the artifacts in her living room.
Louise couldn't keep away from water. She enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1943 and did a tour of duty in Palm Beach, Fla., teaching women in the service how to swim. She was stationed with 600 other women on the USS Biltmore Neversail.
"That's a joke," she says. "We'd actually commandeered the Biltmore Hotel. My job was to guard drunken sailors."
"Is that a reflection on the Navy?" asks Fred.
"No, the Coast Guard."
Around the same time, water ballet pioneer Esther Williams began surfacing in pools full of chorines and corsages in such movie confections as Andy Hardy's Double Life and Easy to Wed, and later in Neptune's Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid.
"Esther Williams had nothing to do with the sport," says Louise.
"Don't say that, dear," says Fred.
"Well, it's true. The dolphin was the only figure I ever saw her do. Compared to what we do today, she was just a pretty face."
"We've got to be very careful about what we say. She's still very popular in many circles."
"She pushed off from the bottom of the pool. In competition, that would be considered cheating!"
Louise returned to Boston in 1946. She ran the swimming program at the downtown YWCA, teaching fundamentals by cranking up Three O'Clock in the Morning on an old Victrola: "Breathe-two-three, blow-two-three, breathe-two-three...." That same year the AAU sanctioned the first national championships in synchronized swimming.
"Here's a lovely new sport," she told her students. "I don't know anything about it, but let's try it." She divided her most graceful swimmers into teams: the Aquateens (teenagers), the Swimphonics (working girls) and the Mermatrons (housewives). With no other clubs to compete against, she staged pool productions with names like Alice in Y Water. Louise never took the plunge herself. "I just coached," she says. "At the time I was considered too old to swim."
In 1950, Louise and her squads put on the first meet in New England. In an extravaganza that rivaled Billy Rose's Aquacade for sheer splashiness, Louise knelt in a canoe and paddled broadside across the width of the pool while swimmers circled her doing dolphins to strains of Cruising down the River (on a Sunday Afternoon).
Her new beau was up in the gallery, gaping. "Boy," Fred says, "if you know how tippy canoes are, that was a real achievement." They had met at a retirement party thrown for her father. "Fred was invited to even things up," she says. But she hardly talked to him. She spent most of the evening away in a corner, knitting. "I was bored," she recalls.
When Fred got up to leave, he told her mother, "I like your children."
After he had gone, Mom told Louise, "Well, he hasn't met your brother, so he must mean you."
Fred showed up at the house every night after that. "I haven't done any knitting since," says Louise.
Synchro partners must always act as one. "We don't have to be hugging each other," says Louise, "but if Fred scratches his nose, I have to, too."
If Fred gets ahead or falls behind, Louise "blubs" him. That's what synchronized swimmers call an underwater scream.
"He's supposed to watch for bubbles coming out of my mouth," she says.
"You could just tell me to slow down," says Fred.
"I could, but you'd never listen."
Fred shrugs. "She's the expert."
Louise oversees their training regimen. She logs a couple of hours a day in the water. "Fred practices every day, but only for half an hour," she says.
On this particular afternoon, Louise rehearses at the pool; Fred stays home, napping. Her solo is a modest feat, a small-scale display of balance and lean design. Wearing a sequined crown and a sparkling silver and blue suit, she sculls around the pool to strains of Beethoven's Seventh. She sinks, comes back up and slowly lifts her legs until they're at right angles to the water. With arrowy poise, she oysters into pikes, sharks and all sorts of fishy hybrids: dolpholinas, catalinas, swordalinas. Submerged for nearly a minute, she emerges dramatically: head up, arms extended, left leg stretched out to a point about chest high. "Fred can do may-be a dozen figures," she says. "I know 438." In other words, every one in the book, plus some.
Back home, Louise pops a videotape of a recent Wings victory into the VCR. As the overture to the musical George M! crescendos, she and Fred mirror each other in corkscrews, kips and barracudas.
Louise thinks her prize pupil has made remarkable progress. "Especially when you consider he was never upside down in his life until he was 72," she says.
"I have too been upside down!" says Fred. "I've been a diver, snorkeling in the Caribbean."
"You were always lifting your head."
"But I dove in, didn't I?"
"Well, I wouldn't call you a diver."
"I just said that to counter your argument that I was never upside down."
Louise looks at him with infinite understanding. "Don't worry, Fred," she says. "In another 10 years, I'm sure you'll have our routine down pat."