"One, two, three, four – squeeze your butt, Paul! – seven, eight," coach Suzanne Baker says into the microphone, pacing the poolside deck and counting the beats to a techno remix of "Another One Bites the Dust."
The members of Tsunami Tsynchro are in the water doing leg splits in the air. The first time they try it, legs bash into heads. "OK, OK, I can fix this," says Baker. She has them add more space by pushing off each other’s shoulders with their feet. They practice the new move repeatedly. "Again. Under. Again. Under," Baker commands.
Tsunami Tsynchro is the country’s first – and right now, only – male synchronized swimming team. It grew out of the Tsunami Swim Team, a gay and lesbian masters team, started two years ago as a synchro team for gay men (though it now includes several women).
They practice twice a week, today holding their underwater positions with the help of empty milk containers. "The bottles force you to find your body mass," Baker explains as they work to mobilize their bodies. The team is preparing its technical routine, a 90-second display of its most difficult moves that will be performed at this summer’s Gay Games in Chicago, where Tsunami Tsynchro will compete for the first time, alongside all-women’s teams.
It will be a big summer for the team, but it could’ve been bigger. In August the XI Fédération Internationale de Natation World Masters Championships are coming to the United States for the second time ever, but the Tsunami team isn’t allowed to compete. When the Bay Area hosts the FINA Championships at the Stanford Aquatic Center, the nation’s first male synchro team will be just a Caltrain ride away from the bleachers, but a lot farther from being permitted into the pool.
Synchronized swimming combines rigorous physical exertion with the demands of polished performance. During routines, swimmers can’t touch the pool’s walls or bottom at any time. They spend a good portion of each routine with their heads underwater and bodies vertical, being judged on how high their legs reach. Coach Baker compares performing a synchro routine to "having to race a 400 individual medley in swimming, holding your breath every third lap, and smiling the entire time."
Stephen Houghton comes to the team with a history of Iron Man competitions and a seven-day stage race across the Sahara desert. He says synchro is tougher, and credits his one advantage not to his years of endurance sports but rather to his ballet training as a kid. "It gave me flexibility, and the ability to count to eight. You’d be surprised how many men can’t count to eight."
Underwater, the swimmers have to do more than count and hold their breath; they also have to control their heart rate. "If you’re pumped up and excited, you burn up all your oxygen," says Stuart Hills, a brown belt in tae kwon do and a former competitive swimmer. "You have to get into a relaxation state."
Pool time can be perilous too. Complicated lifts can lead to injury – bloody and broken noses, for example, and one bad incident involving a knee splintering a set of goggles. But during the routines, the difficulty of the sport has to melt away from the performance. "It’s tough," Hills says, "but you’re supposed to make it look easy."
Image is key to synchro – in a couple of ways. On the one hand, swimmers are judged by the attitude they project during routines; on the other, they must fight the image problem that has hindered their sport’s mainstream acceptance.
Synchronized swimming is a sport almost defined by the mockeries made of it, including the classic Saturday Night Live skits involving a pair of male synchronized swimmers, one wearing floaties. You’re more likely to find synchro on Comedy Central – in movies ranging from Austin Powers to Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part I – than on ESPN. That’s made Tsunami Tsynchro’s quest for acceptance all the more difficult.
"This is really the last area men haven’t been able to compete [in]," says Bob Wheeler, one of the team’s founding members. Unlike female-dominated sports such as figure skating and gymnastics, synchronized swimming has no male or mixed category. "You don’t have many young boys doing synchro," Baker notes, "so they don’t see a need to make a category yet."
Beyond gender bias, there are other barriers to creating male synchro teams. In general, new synchro teams are not started very often because it’s an expensive sport. The underwater speaker system cost the Tsunami team $3,000. Synchro teams also have fewer swimmers than most swim teams, yet they need more attention and more pool time to hone their routines, so each member must pay more in coaching and pool fees. And in order to develop and practice routines, all the team members must be present.
"This is in no way an individual sport," says Baker.
If new synchro teams are rare, new male synchro teams are even more elusive, the white tiger of aquatic sports. It’s not a sport in which men find it easy to participate. When Wheeler created his Match.com profile, he debated whether or not to put down synchronized swimming as one of his hobbies. As it turned out, Wheeler began dating Kurt Kleespies, a longtime swimmer, who’s now the newest member of the team.
Officially, men aren’t welcome under the sport’s highest guidelines. Though they are allowed to compete domestically under US Synchro rules, FINA, the worldwide governing body of aquatic sports, doesn’t allow men to compete at an international level.
"In theory," Baker admits, "women shouldn’t compete directly with men." At the Olympic level, she says, the rule makes sense since men have the capacity for greater strength. But at the masters level, she argues, the genders are much more evenly matched. Most women competing at the masters level have been longtime synchro swimmers. The men are almost all beginners. And when they’re starting out, she says, men face several significant barriers: "Women tend to be more flexible. Men are denser and therefore less buoyant. These guys are all trained swimmers…. They were sinkers from the get-go."
No men allowed
More than 8,000 international masters athletes will hit the Bay Area in August for the FINA championships in swimming, diving, water polo, and – for women only – synchronized swimming.
Because of the FINA rule, the World Masters Championships can’t allow men to compete. "We are all for people competing in whatever sport they want to compete," says Anne Cribbs, chair of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee and executive director of the FINA championships. She supports male participation in the sport if approved by FINA, but can’t permit it in international competition until it’s officially accepted.
Not so long ago, the rule seemed poised for change. "In 2000 I thought it might happen," says Don Kane, competition director for synchronized swimming at the World Masters. Five years ago a proposal was brought before the FINA General Conference to allow men to compete. It was passed by the FINA Congress, but then overruled by FINA president Mustapha Larfaoui, from Algeria, and FINA executive director Cornell Marculescu, from Romania, who cited a lack of male teams. Or, as Kane suggests, concerns by "male-dominated cultures."
The prospects for men competing internationally are not bright in the immediate future, Kane surmises. At the Athens Olympics, Larfaoui had the FINA rules changed so he could run for office again, and Kane doesn’t foresee the synchro rules changing under his command.
As for the Tsunamis, "we thought about registering as a female team and trying to pass as women," coach Baker jokes. She turns serious, though, saying, "These guys are doing a lot of hard work. They should be allowed to compete."
The team is hoping to put on an exhibition routine, though they’ll need FINA permission even for that. But Tsunami board member Brad Hise is optimistic about their chances, saying, "This is the Bay Area; men do things here that people don’t typically associate with us."
Synchro is a sport of physical challenge, artistic movement, jazzy music, gender conflict, and international cultural clashes. And one more thing, says Stevens: It’s also a sport of total surprise. "People disappear underwater, and you think, what will they do when they come up?"