Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the sport of synchronized swimming.
It's beautiful to watch - swimmers glide seemingly without effort through the water, smiles on their faces, wrists and legs snapping in unison as they perform movements unique to the sport.
Sure, it looks easy, but here's the truth: "It's exhausting," says Mary Rose, coach of the Team Orlando Loreleis.
"I've only tried parts of it in my own pool, and believe me, it takes a lot of strength," says Jan Weirick of Orlando. She is watching her daughter, Dorema, practice with her six teammates at the Central Florida YMCA Aquatic & Family Center, where they train up to five days a week.
The 14-year-old is doing a slow backstroke across the pool, arms gracefully pinwheeling. Then she bends backward into a somersault that submerges her upside-down to her hips. She holds her legs above the surface for several seconds, toes pointing. She sinks slowly, her feet disappearing in a ripple of water. Seconds later, Dorema pops up, waving an arm, her fingers extended. Though she is smiling, she is breathing hard from exertion.
"Synchronized swimming has built up her endurance," her mother says. "She was very tired at first" after the workouts.
"It's a lot of hard work. It's two hours of just swimming," says Christine Henson of Orlando, whose daughter, Megan, 10, is a teammate.
Hours in the pool practicing the sport can bring an enviable level of physical fitness. "The physiological benefits are developing greater lung and cardiovascular capacity," says Dr. Jane Katz of New York. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and swim coach began participating in the sport in 1964, when a Hungarian coach taught her the moves.
Top synchro swimmers can hold their breath underwater for a minute or more while performing kicks and splits with their legs. And the cardio workout, with water providing muscle-building resistance, can burn several hundred calories a session, she says.
Katz, who is 64 and still swimming synchro, says she is proof of the sport's benefits. "I've been told that I look a fraction of what (the age) I really am because it keeps you fit."
"It's the best all-around sport that there is," Rose says. "There isn't any part of the body it doesn't use."
There's the brain - "You have to memorize the routine."
Lungs - "You have to learn to hold your breath."
Wrists and arms - "They keep you afloat."
Legs - "Keeping your leg up in the air (while swimming) takes a great deal of strength and flexibility."
Those training to be synchro swimmers must first master two basics, Katz says - "sculling" and the eggbeater kick.
"Sculling propels you in the water," she says. It's done by waving the arms and hands beside the body. "It's like doing a figure eight motion on your (body's) side . . . like you're washing a pane of glass. It looks easy, but you're working hard."
The eggbeater kick - with legs split and knees bent in front of the swimmer - is also used in water polo. Synchro swimmers use it to keep themselves high in the water and their arms free for movements.
From there, the sport builds on strokes such as the freestyle and backstroke while incorporating hand and arm gestures. Then, more complicated movements such as backflips and leg raises are added, along with a good dose of the kind of artistic expression found in dance.
During a recent practice, Rose speaks into a microphone that broadcasts her instructions to students via underwater speakers. She works first on participants' swimming skills, giving them tips on improving their techniques as they swim laps. After warming up, each student does "over and unders" to improve lung capacity, taking a deep breath, then pushing off the wall and swimming underwater for the pool's width. It can take up to a year to do the 25 yards in one breath, she says.
After that, the girls do "bottle work" - holding onto large, empty laundry detergent bottles for flotation as they practice somersaults and other moves.
"Then you get into the routining, which has them put these things together," explains Rose, 75, who found the sport as a teenager and likes to begin swimmers at age 7 or older.
The final product, of course, is those fluid swim/dance routines put to music.
This sport has everything . . .
Though its participants know better, synchro still is generally viewed as being more artistic than athletic. In fact, it didn't become an Olympic sport until 1984, Katz says.
Still, it's more exception than norm at Central Florida pools. The aquatic center is the only YMCA facility offering a synchronized-swimming program. And although Orlando's aquatics program offers the sport as part of its summer program, the classes often are canceled for lack of participants, says Tyrone Walker, the city's aquatics program manager.
Though the program is tailored to children, Walker says they would consider offering it to adults if they were interested. But the sport takes practice to learn, and he's not optimistic about adult participation. "They're too busy" with their lives. However, "if adults wanted it, we'd do it."
Katz works with adults in her co-ed program in New York City. "It is so nice because it's a group effort," she says. "We have a blast."
Dannyfer Cepeda, whose daughter, Valentina, 10, swims with the Loreleis in Orlando, says the sport has everything the youngster wants. "She loves it. Finally we found a sport that has dance, swimming and a team element."
"All these girls are mermaids," Henson says, as she watches Megan, queue up in formation in the pool. "They really are."