Your daughter loves the water, yet the prospect of racing holds no appeal. Neither does jumping off a high platform to dive. Thus, the only way that she can enjoy the pool is through a few hours each afternoon in summer doing recreational swim.
Think again. Why not have her try synchronized swimming? Popularized by Esther Williams in a number of movies during Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1940s, synchronized swimming became an Olympic sport in 1984. Synchronized swimming combines basic skills with moves derived from dance and gymnastics. The sport requires strength, endurance, flexibility, grace and artistry along with precise timing and breath control.
When it comes to synchronized swimming, Nan Zack has seen it all. The Mount Prospect resident has been involved in the sport in more years than she cares to count, first as a competitor, then as a coach. For the last 42 years, she has coached the AquaSprites, competitive synchronized swimming squads of both youths and adults that practice out of Lattof YMCA in Des Plaines.
The group is small, with about 21 participants on the youth team and 10 on the master's squad. Some, like assistant coach Patty Moyer of Barrington, began with Zack as youth competitors and continued through the master's division. Now Moyer's own daughter, Megan, competes as part of the youth team.
Although Zack says the sport actually began in the Midwest, most of today's teams are located on the West Coast. The AquaSprites are the only team in the Northwest suburbs.
No special skills are needed to participate in synchronized swimming, simply a love of water.
“The little ones are fun to work,” Zack said. The AquaSprites have members as young as 6 years old on the team. Many members transition into the Master's Team once they are 20 years old.
“When they are little we choose their music and give them an idea of what to do, but when they get older they do their own choreography.”
Lattof YMCA conducts beginner lessons for those interested in synchronized swimming from September through June each year. Participants must be able to swim one length of the pool and be at least 5 years old. First they learn basic skills such as somersaults, sharks, dolphins, kips, ballet legs, sidestroke and breaststroke.
“A long time ago we used to have prepared routines, kind of like the way figure skating is done,” said Assistant Coach Patty Moyer. “However, not anymore. The routines are more or less all hybrid elements now.”
Routines run from 2½ to 4 minutes long, depending on the age and skill level of the participants. A variety of music accompanies the swimmers, ranging from traditional and folk tunes to movie scores and pop tunes. Swimmers may compete as soloists, duos, trios or in groups of as many as 10.
While they may not have the advantage of lots of local competition, the AquaSprites are a successful organization, traveling about four to five times per year. For the youth squad, that included qualifying and performing for the eSynchro Age Group Championships in California in June. The Masters squad recently placed third for North American teams and seventh overall in the 2013 Pan American Masters Championships held in Sarasota, Fla. The organization also regularly hosts regional competition that draws teams from several Midwestern states.
AquaSprites members practice about six hours per week during the year, working on their skills on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. The season is divided into distinct parts with fall devoted to conditioning and strengthening of skills and winter on the development of routine. During spring months the girls compete, while summers are devoted to the national competition and team's annual show/demonstration of skills. Zack noted that some of the high-school-aged girls, like Moyer's daughter. Megan, swim with their high school teams in the fall and then return to the AquaSprites after that season is finished.
What draws a girl to be part of the AquaSprites? A lot of it is just sheer fun.
“I like the music, the routines and just how we do everything, “ said Olivia Vasilakopoulos of Park Ridge, an intermediate level syncho swimmer.
Zack indicated that many of the girls are musical and play instruments on their own or as part of their school's band or orchestra.
“That helps because they're used to counting,” Zack said. “They can hear the music underwater, but you have to count in order to perform the routines.”
Zack added that coaching the older girls and the master's swimmers is not complicated because the performers thoroughly know what they are doing.
“The funny thing is, half the time you don't have to correct them because they already know what they did wrong,” she said.
Some of the girls, like Jenna Gudritz, 16, who has been an AquaSprite for eight years, and Marilee Stonis, 16, both of Mount Prospect, became hooked on the sport after seeing a demonstration.
“I just couldn't sit on the side and watch after seeing a demonstration,” Stonis said. The girls perform routines together and have also worked at a synchro swimming camp hosted by Lattof YMCA this summer.
Both Gudritz and Stonis have encountered people who don't take their sport seriously.
“A lot of people say it looks so easy and think that it is only ballet in the water,” Gudritz said. “One of the hardest things to do, though, is learning to hold your breath underwater while performing the moves.”
Once those skills are mastered, however, synchro swimmers often stay with the sport for decades. Zack, who is a member of the U.S. Synchro Hall of Fame, still competes from time to time and notes that many elderly people throughout the nation also perform at competitions. Likewise, Patty Moyer, who is taking a short break from competing, has been in the sport for 38 years, almost the entire time that Zack has coached at Lattof.
“I just love the sport and the opportunities that it gives the kids,” Moyer said.
For Zack's part, she intends to keep on coaching and performing with the master's group as long as possible. As to that burning question if she ever met Esther Williams, the answer is this.
“She actually came to my high school (Steinmetz), sat on the diving board and talked to us, but never got in the water,” Zack said. “Imagine that.”
Ÿ For more information on the AquaSprites team, contact Lattof YMCA at (847) 296-3376.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.