When can we breathe, coach?

Wet: Columbia's Ginny Chadwick teaches girls the athletics and ballet of synchronized swimming, much of which happens underwater.

Howard At Play

October 26, 2003|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Ginny Chadwick has the perfect retort for anyone who mocks her sport, synchronized swimming, calling it, oh, things such as theater or show business, but not a real sport.

"Come join us in the pool," is what the resident of Oakland Mills village in Columbia says.

Because Chadwick knows something her sport's knee-jerk critics don't get: It's flippin' hard to hold your breath for as much as 30 seconds while twisting and turning, keeping time to the music, and looking good in water way deeper than you are tall. Yes, it's athletic.

For example, one move requires you to twist your body, then spin it while sticking your feet straight up out of the water and ramming your head straight down, deep - all while making everything seem easy and not drowning. And usually you must execute it in sync with others in a choreographed routine with as many as seven teammates in the pool with you.

Muff up, and nit-picky judges deduct points, diminishing your chances of winning.

Chadwick coaches the only synchronized swimming team anywhere close to Howard County, the Potomac Valley Pearls, a small club in a sport that is viewed by the masses once every four years, when another Olympics hits national television.

Chadwick has been coach for 11 years. This the time of year, her club welcomes new members, as young as 8 and as old as 18, and begins working on routines to be performed in competition during the next 10 months. Competing typically means flying someplace to synchronized swimming meets on the West Coast, or in Texas, Florida or Arizona. Or maybe upstate New York.

The Pearls, about 20 girls, eight from Howard County this fall, have a meet coming up in Williamsburg, Va., to which they and their parents can drive. But then, Chadwick said, "we have to fly," because synchronized swimming clubs aren't found in every indoor pool.

Chadwick's club has to travel just to practice, because no Howard County pool has enough deep water for her swimmers to use at one time. You'll find her club working out just across the county line at the Fairland Aquatics Center in Laurel, which includes an Olympic-size pool.

For those neophyte Pearls, now's the time to build what many would consider amazing stamina and to begin perfecting - and Chadwick and her assistants mean perfecting - required "figures," or moves.

That means expanding their vocabularies to include moves such as the kip, a barracuda, the ibis, Catalina, and once those beginners become more proficient, maybe a "side fishtail split." It also means swimming laps on the pool's surface but returning with a 25-meter sprint - under water.

"Most people think it's pretty cool when they hear you're into synchro," said Margaret Peeples, 18, an Atholton High grad and UMBC sophomore who has been with the Pearls for nine years. "They always ask how long you can hold your breath."

Peeples, who is helping teach beginners this year in addition to competing for the Pearls, particularly likes doing moves called lifts. A lift propels a swimmer up abruptly and sometimes out of the water - "It's like a human-power kind of thing," said Peeples.

The sport's fundamentals, as described by writer Duke Zielinski for U.S. Synchronized Swimming, demand unusual knowledge of the body's muscle groups.

Basic physics applies, as well, Zielinski wrote, explaining that the sport requires "simple concepts ... based on scientific principles of muscular function, inertia, centers of gravity and buoyancy, Bernoulli's principle of lift force, resistance, fluid mechanics and lever systems."

Well, said Chadwick, you don't actually need to know all that stuff, per se. But you do have to be a good, medium-range swimmer with freestyle, back and side strokes, comfortable in deep water, and do the things you're taught correctly. Sloppiness as imperceptible as a tilted hand, or leaning just a little, can translate to artistic and athletic disaster in the pool.

Strength and flexibility are requisite, too, as in doing splits in any direction, for in the pool, unlike gymnasts who need comparable flexibility and strength, synchronized swimmers sometimes have to perform their splits upside-down without the benefit of gravity pulling the body down.

Chadwick, 40, began learning the sport as a sixth-grader with a long-defunct club in Columbia.

She has coached about 100 swimmers, with six now competing in the sport in college. She is proud of several swimmers who have placed in zone meets, meaning for the entire South, although the club has never placed in nationals.

Synchro, as it is referred to, also can become a lifetime sport.

"I know women who are 75 and still competing at the master's level," Chadwick said. "It's real easy on the joints."

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