No, those girls aren't in white face. They have just slathered on sunscreen to protect their skin from the sun as they spend upwards of eight hours a day training outside in a swimming pool. And, no, they aren't addicted to Jell-O. Instead,they are buying boxes of gelatin in order to slick back their hair during competitions. This is the sport of synchronized swimming and it is the subject of a great documentary, just released to DVD-- Sync or Swim. The film, originally released to festivals in 2008, follows the selection process and the competition at the 2004 Olympics. As one of the swimmers explains, "synchro" is not a glory sport. There aren't any big endorsements. The Olympic experience is the pay-off.
The director, Cheryl Furjanic, does a great job showing the everyday dedication required to be an elite-level synchronized swimmer. Every swimmer must work at the local Bingo hall once a week to raise funds. Many give up jobs, or have parents who give up jobs, and move across country to support their dreams. All while spending upwards of 8-12 hours per day physically training.
And, while many often make fun of synchro for the glitz and make-up associated with competitions, the daily reality is glitz-free. During training, and even Olympic Trials , no glitz is in evidence as all the women don similar black suits and white caps with only a number identifying them. Sure there is a focus on "looking good," which means being attractive and competing with a smile, but synchro requires that these women be tremendously strong and flexible athletes. Sync or Swim helpfully explains the key elements in a routine (like the "egg beater" and the "heron"); turns out that in a typical synchro routine swimmers complete four laps of the pool while performing. In breaking down the training the DVD reminded me of one of my favorite (though often unappreciated) sociology books-- Daniel Chambliss' Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers (for a shorter summary of one of the key concepts in the book, check out his article "The Mundanity of Excellence").
Just as Furjanic breaks down the training and elements she also, wisely, chooses to give the viewers some context and history. Synchronized swimming was originally known as "water ballet" and "ornamental swimming" when it started in the 1920s. As the sport became more technical, with rules and judges' scores, the name change occurred (again, I can't help but point out the timing of when this competitive structure started, and how that coincides with other competitive activities prior to WWII-- see an article I wrote on this here). Popularity came after the 1939 World's Fair and the rise of Esther Williams. Williams was originally a speed swimmer, but due to WWII no Olympic Games were held and she was recruited to join the Aquacades, which helped her land a movie contract, and the rest is history. Synchro became an Olympic sport in 1984 (before that it had been an exhibition event) and the US dominated the medal podium until 1996. Since then Russia, Japan, and Spain have proven to be strong competitors.
Chris Carver tells much of this history in Sync or Swim. Carver is a formidable woman, coaching the swimmers from high above. All the coaches tend to sit above the pool, looking down, and they use a microphone to bark commands and corrections that can be heard underwater as well. With her ubiquitous voice head coach Carver seems a God-like figure. She also reminded me of the director in A Chorus Line, who similarly uses a microphone to control his charges from a disembodied high perch.
Carver is also featured in another recent documentary about synchronized swimming-- 2008's Synchronized Swimming, released by PBS as part of their "The Pursuit of Excellence" series (I must tell you, if you haven't seen the Ferrets episode that is part of this series, you are seriously missing out. It is a real-life/too-much-to-be-believed version of Best in Show... but with ferrets). Though this came out before Sync or Swim, it takes place after the main action of it. In this documentary Carver is no longer Olympic head coach; instead she is coach of the Santa Clara Aquamaids, one of the top synchro clubs. Also featured in both docs is Anna Kozlova. In Sync or Swim she is a competitor (winning two Olympic medals), and in The Pursuit of Excellence episode she is a coach of the Aquamaids. (A nice touch in the 2011 DVD of Sync or Swim is that the bonus features give you a 2010-11 update on where the swimmers and coaches are now-- and many of them have gone on to great personal and professional success in and out of synchronized swimming [particularly noteworthy is how many have received top-notch higher educations].)
While Sync or Swim is definitely more comprehensive and edited better, which also means telling a more compelling story with lots of drama (including the story of one swimmer who was involved in a tragic car accident that leads to jail time), I did like that The Pursuit of Excellence episode discussed boys in the sport of synchro whereas Sync or Swim was mute on this issue. One talented young man is featured, and his dedication is all the more admirable given he is not currently allowed to compete in major international events, like the Olympics. Though, if you can only purchase or view one, my vote goes to Sync or Swim, for its superior editing, narrative arc, and contextualization of the sport.
On a final note, in The Pursuit of Excellence episode, coach Chris Carver does *guarantee* that at least one of the young swimmers featured will someday make an Olympic team. I did a bit of digging and couldn't find that any of the "stars" made the 2008 team. Can anyone confirm if any are up for next summer's 2012 London Games? Based on the timeline in Sync or Swim, the training squad should already be taking shape (note Trials are this November).