When synchronized swimming was introduced to the Olympics in 1984, it was the butt of more than a few jokes. Elaborate swim ballets reminiscent of ’50s-era Esther Williams movies were suddenly vying for the gold, and what many thought of as aquatic ballerinas were kicking and stroking into kaleidoscopic patterns in the world’s foremost sporting competition. People had trouble taking it seriously. “You must have seen the Saturday Night Live skit,” Lisa laughs, recalling the mid-’80s Harry Shearer-Martin Short spoof that featured the two as passionate but abysmal synchro swimmers.
“One of the things that masks the difficulty [of the sport] is that we train our athletes to make it look effortless,” says Lisa, “to make it graceful and beautiful with the strength elements in it. It’s very similar to figure skating.” In more ways than one: Like figure skating, synchronized swimming is now a hot ticket at the Games. “It’s actually the most popular sport at the [summer] Olympics,” Lianne says. “It’s the first to sell out.”
And so the once-mocked sport is gaining credence across the globe. Its arrival on Island shores was a bit of a fluke, though. Lianne and Lisa didn’t move to Hawai‘i to start up a synchronized swimming program. Sure, both were former members of the US national team, but that wasn’t what was driving them. For Lianne, the lure of Hawai‘i was the weather. “My husband and I thought, ‘Why wait until retirement?’ We had no kids, no jobs and no home. So we packed up what we had and three months later moved out here. Best move we ever made!”
Lisa came to earn her master’s degree in education at the University of Hawai‘i. Not long after she arrived, she found herself teaching a synchronized swimming class at a summer aqua camp. “That was really the first gig [in Hawai‘i],” she says. “When I started coaching again, I thought, ‘I can’t give this up. I absolutely love this.’” Lisa knew Lianne was also living on O‘ahu. She contacted her and “we decided to really make a go of it,” she recalls.
Really make a go of it they did. In 2005, the two established the Hawai‘i Synchro Club, teaching at three ascending levels—junior, senior and master—at the La Pietra and West O‘ahu pools. They also established a collegiate team at UH MAnoa. “It took awhile to get through the red tape,” says Lianne, “but we went through the whole process.” The pair has high hopes for the school’s team: They believe UH MAnoa may soon be on par with top synchro schools like Stanford and Ohio State University, citing Hawai‘i’s weather as a formidable asset.
Rachel and Susie—the brunette and the blonde UH athletes I watched practice—certainly consider themselves fortunate to be able to practice synchro year-round outdoors and in the sun. But they’re humble when it comes to their skills. “Sometimes when you’re moving through the water, you feel like a dolphin and you feel very graceful and energetic,” Susie says, drying off after practice. “But other days, you feel more like a monk seal. Then I’m just waiting for the rest of the routine to end so I can fall out onto the side of the pool and beach myself.”
“Out of the water,” Rachel says, “I’m the most ungraceful person.”