Synchronized swimming is even more impressive when you learn its history


When I was a small child, my mother often brought me along when she taught physical education at a small women’s college, run by nuns who were happy to have a young married woman to handle fencing instruction and sex education. Mom also gave swimming lessons, teaching the basics along with American Red Cross-certified lifesaving.

My favorite days poolside were the ones when Mom reminded the students that swimming was about more than laps; it also involved strength and acrobatics. She’d demonstrate a few “synch” moves herself (she was by no means an expert, but she was young and fearless) before asking the class to try. After they failed, they filled the chlorine-scented room with peals of laughter.

Journalist Vicki Valosik, herself a master synchronized swimmer, knows that the sport involves more than waterproof makeup and spangled costumes. Her new book, “Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water,” traces the history of the sport with the precision and grace of an Esther Williams tableau (more on Williams shortly). The author shows how the different strands involved in aquatic feats allowed women competitive sports opportunities they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Ever since the fantastic gold-medal win by Candy Costie and Tracie Ruiz at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, not to mention innovations both in and out of the water, such as rigorous training and technical standards, interest in synchronized swimming is strong. However, many people still misunderstand how the sport developed — not to mention how difficult it is to perfect moves like a vertical, in which a swimmer maintains perfect ballet posture upside down in the water.

The modern approach to natation began during the Renaissance, when a Frenchman named Melchisédech Thévenot wrote a book on the subject, followed closely by Englishman Everard Digby, whose 1587 “De Arte Natandi” (“The Art of Swimming”) described not only ways to move through the water, but also some types of stunts or “refinements.” Valosik delights in opening her section on swimming’s “Science” with descriptions of a young Benjamin Franklin practicing “scientific swimming.” He and other proponents of hydrosports believed that regular swimming and water exercises were the best kind of exercise for health and for the figure.

Given that focus, one might think men would have encouraged women to jump on in. However, given the centuries during which trials by water were used to prove witchcraft, not to mention the ridiculous lengths to which authorities would go to keep women’s figures covered, whenever those women got close to a beach, society frowned. As Valosik points out, for a long time it seemed swimming was for men; women would have to be content with bathing.

However, in the “Stage” chapter, Valosik shows that several intrepid women, notably England’s 19th century Beckwith sisters and America’s “Lurline the Water Queen,” used public obsession with feminine physiques to launch their careers. Agnes Beckwith became the first woman to swim from London to Greenwich, wearing a “rose-pink” knitted bathing costume of llama wool. Lurline’s tank-based stunts, which showed off her lung capacity of 200 cubic inches, were taken further by the “mother of synchronized swimming,” Annette Kellerman. Kellerman’s fame and fortune grew as she made blockbuster movies such as “Neptune’s Daughter” (1914) and “Daughter of the Gods” (1916), in which Kellerman dove from a 100-foot tower into the waters of San Francisco Bay, missing rocks at the base by just 3 feet.

Such famous women in the water led to a genuine craze for swimming lessons, especially after the 1904 tragedy of a shipboard fire on the New York Harbor steamer the General Slocum. More than 1,000 people, mostly women and children who were on a church cruise, died when they tried to escape the flames and drowned. Few of them could swim, and even those who could were hampered by heavy clothing and shoes. “Safety,” as Chapter 4 is titled, was added to the art of swimming before it could turn into Chapter 5, “Sport.”

Enter the American Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, whose natural athleticism highlighted an era in which women finally overcame some of the barriers between bathing and swimming. During the 1930s, “synching” (as it was first called) coupled endurance in water with acrobatics in water, as innovators such as Katherine Curtis developed signature moves that, when performed by swimmers linked at arms or legs or both, could create dazzling patterns. Chapter 8, “Spectacle,” follows the 1939 discovery and triumphs of the actor-swimmer Esther Williams. It is she who lends the book its title, having once said: “If you’re not strong enough to swim fast, you’re probably not strong enough to swim ‘pretty.’”

Williams made her name in “Aquacade” shows, which she called “a sexual carnival” and which she left for … Hollywood. Her movies made, of course, a big splash.

In 1984, when synchronized swimming debuted as an Olympic sport at the Summer Games in Los Angeles, Williams said: “Just imagine having the lung power of a long-distance runner, the leg strength of a water polo player in order to get those lifts out of the water, the grace and rhythm of a ballet dancer working to music, a gymnast performing a whole floor exercise underwater holding your breath. … And then you add to that, that she must do all this in perfect synchronization with her partner, and that’s synchronized swimming.”

Now officially called “artistic swimming,” this sport has only gotten tougher. Women have broken more barriers to proper training and recognition; these days, there are new safety hazards to “synching” as competitors get stronger and faster and fiercer. But even as my mother’s students laughed because they couldn’t hold the positions required for “synch,” not one of them wanted to stop trying. Once you get women into the water, they’re not going to go back to sitting pretty on the shore. As the 2024 Games begin next month in Paris, “Swimming Pretty” can be a great primer on a spectacular, strenuous sport.

Bethanne Patrick is a book critic, a podcast host and the author of the memoir “Life B: Overcoming Double Depression.”



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