Olympic Sports Fiftysomethings Should Try: Synchronized Swimming
It's harder than it looks, but "synchro" can also be a low-impact workout that keeps you fit for life
This is the second article in a five-part series from writer Matthew Solan on Summer Olympic sports that fiftysomething readers may want to take up to boost their fitness.
Synchronized swimming, or "synchro," is still seen by many casual fans as more of an artistic endeavor than an athletic feat. If your impression of the sport is based on visions of waterproof eyeliner, petal-covered swim caps, Esther Williams movies and that classic Saturday Night Live sketch, think again: It requires tremendous effort to make swimming in sync look so effortless.
"Synchro is a theatrical sport where we have the pretty makeup and the big smiles," U.S. Olympian Mary Killman said in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated. "But under all that — under water — it’s chaos. We're kicking each other like crazy and trying to hold each other up."
Killman and partner Mariya Koroleva will represent the U.S. in the Olympic duet competition at the London Games from August 5-7. Russia, which has captured the last three gold medals in synchronized swimming, and Japan are considered the teams to beat. (The U.S. failed to qualify for the nine-woman team event for the first time.)
The Basics of Synchronized Swimming
Synchro is much like it appears — a dance routine in water, choreographed to music. You snap into this position, you snap into that position, you twirl, spin, kick and jump. And you always move in perfect sequence with your partner or teammates in one continuous, flowing program.
"We must have flexible joints and muscles to get into the various positions required to perform the leg and arm sequences in routines," says Nathalie Schneyder Bartleson, a member of the 1996 gold-medal-winning U.S. team and its 2004 Olympic coach. "If you can hold a squat position on land, do a perfectly straight plank or push-up position, go into a split, and hoist anything heavy over your head many times, that’s a great start to learning and executing many of the sport’s required skills."
There are two basic moves that synchro swimmers at any level must master: sculling and the eggbeater kick. Sculling is a means of propelling yourself in the water by waving the arms and hands beside the body, like doing a figure-eight on your side. The eggbeater kick is done with your legs split and your knees bent in front of you, keeping you high in the water while leaving your arms free for movements.
From these basic moves, routines are built around strokes, such as the freestyle and backstroke; hand and arm gestures; and more complicated moves such as backflips, leg twirls and leg raises. There's also the little matter of building the lung capacity that allows competitors to repeatedly hold their breath during a routine, for up to a minute at a time, sometimes while floating upside down. A complete routine, says Bartleson, is "like swimming a 400-meter individual medley, but only breathing for a few seconds at a time."
Your Synchronized Swimming Workout
Don't be intimidated by the perfect poses of the stars you'll see in London. You can enjoy synchro's fitness benefits without Olympic-level training. There are synchronized swimming and aquatic exercise classes at many local recreation centers, YWCAs and regional swim clubs. Check the website of USA Synchro, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., for sessions in your area. They are generally open to swimmers at all skill levels, including synchro beginners.
Like any other pool workout, synchro will help tone your arms, legs and core. And since the water provides buoyancy, there is less stress on your joints than, say, running on a sidewalk, which makes it a great exercise for gracefully aging bodies.
The format of any specific synchro class will vary according to the age and experience of the swimmers, but a typical practice should begin with a period of stretching and bending the joints, spine, hamstrings, quads, chest and arms, followed by a warm-up swim of up to 500 yards. After that, swimmers take several laps while focusing on specific skills, like eggbeaters or underwater propulsion. The session typically concludes with routine choreography and practice. Depending on your group's ability, that could include underwater somersaults; holding your legs above the surface, toes pointing skyward; or leaps out of the water.
"Synchronized swimming has kept me out of the doctor’s office," says Lettice Graham, 90, of New York City. She has been a member of the Honeys and Bears, a 50-and-over synchro team in Manhattan, since 1986 — which was also the year she learned to swim.
Graham and her teammates practice for an hour twice a week, working on kicks, flips and underwater headstands. She calls it her best medicine. "I don’t take any medication for pain," Graham says, "and my blood pressure is 120/68."
The team often performs at recreation centers and, annually, at community pools to mark the start of summer. Their grand finale — Graham's favorite maneuver — is the Pyramid, in which 10 swimmers backstroke in a pyramid formation while teammates form a circle around them. In the Olympic spirit, the group usually performs the routine to the theme from Chariots of Fire.
Former ABC News correspondent and devoted distance swimmer Lynn Sherr reported on some of the physical and mental benefits of aquatic workouts in a recent Next Avenue article. Dr. Joel Stager, associate director of Indiana’s Department of Kinesiology and director of its Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming, told Sherr, "We've found that the arteries of older [United States Masters Swimming] members tend to be more elastic than those of younger non-swimmers, and that the muscle mass of older Masters Swimmers is equivalent to persons 15 years younger."
Masters Swimmers, Stager added, also have lower average heart rates than more sedentary people in the same age group.
In addition, Sherr reported, the Indiana lab found that regular swimmers appear to have greater cell density and stronger “connectedness” between neurons in the cerebellum, which could protect them from age-related complications in gait and balance, which lead to falls.
These swimmers also show very little decline in nerve conduction velocity (NCV) — the speed with which your brain tells your muscles what to do. The NCV rate in 80-year-old swimmers was similar to that of 50-year-olds in the general population.
That's incentive enough to get in the pool — and get in sync.