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Synchronized swimming: West Mesa is host pool for event

Angela Gephart, left, 28, and her partner Brynn Hollingsworth, right, 25, from Columbus, Ohio, compete with a duet during the U.S. Masters National Synchronized Swimming Championships at West Mesa Aquatic Center in Albuquerque, N.M. on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Angela Gephart, left, 28, and her partner Brynn Hollingsworth, right, 25, from Columbus, Ohio, compete with a duet during the U.S. Masters National Synchronized Swimming Championships at West Mesa Aquatic Center in Albuquerque, N.M. on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s hard to say which is trickier in synchronized swimming: getting someone to try the sport or getting them to quit.

An eye-catching blend of athleticism, grace and artistry, synchronized swimming has a long history and has been an official Olympic sport since 1984. Still, it’s not exactly the kind of mainstream sport most young athletes dream about.

“My hometown team had a summer camp, and my mom dragged me to it,” said Alyssa Miller, a 23-year-old Florida native who moved to Albuquerque six months ago. “I said, ‘Mom, this is stupid.’ Turned out I loved it.”

Gina Cordova’s synchro story is similar. Cordova, 36, was talked into trying the sport by a friend and ended up competing through college and beyond.

Like Miller, Cordova moved to Albuquerque as an adult. She grew up in upstate New York where synchronized swimming has a greater tradition and following.

Both women were drawn to West Mesa Aquatic Center this week because the facility is hosting the U.S. Masters Synchronized Swimming National Championships. They are serving as volunteers at the four-day event, which they hope will springboard local interest.

“There are no teams in New Mexico,” Cordova said, “but there are synchronized swimmers here. We’ve all been popping up this week and we’re trying to come together. It’s such a great sport, we’d love to get it going here.”

Cordova got inspired when she found out the national championships were coming to Albuquerque. She began training in May and ended up winning a silver medal in her age division’s figures competition.

“I hadn’t competed in 12 years,” Cordova said, “so I feel pretty good about it.”

Phyllis Newmark, 59, left, and her mother Jeanne Newmark, 83, from Portland, Oregon, listen to the score they earned while competing in a duet together during the U.S. Masters National Synchronized Swimming Championships at West Mesa Aquatic Center in Albuquerque, N.M. on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Phyllis Newmark, 59, left, and her mother Jeanne Newmark, 83, from Portland, Oregon, listen to the score they earned while competing in a duet together during the U.S. Masters National Synchronized Swimming Championships at West Mesa Aquatic Center in Albuquerque, N.M. on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

As one might imagine, synchronized swimming requires a high level of fitness and breath control. Athletes are not allowed to touch the pool’s bottom or sides during three- or five-minute routines that can be remarkably strenuous.

“I describe it like running on treadmill while holding your breath underwater,” Miller said.

But masters-level synchronized swimming competitors are not all longtime athletes or former racing swimmers. Synchro has masters age divisions in 10-year increments. Competitors range from age 20 into their 80s and sometimes beyond.

Veronica Stofiel, 45, only recently took up synchronized swimming. She traveled to Albuquerque to compete this week with the Tualatin Hills club from Portland, Ore.

“I was just looking for something new when I got into it,” Stofiel said. “I’d taken swimming lessons but I wasn’t a competitive swimmer. Now I’ve really got the bug.”

Stofiel said she loves synchro’s combination of fitness, creativity and music. In Saturday’s free competitions, swimmers performed to music ranging from classical to rock to campy.

“We call ours the ‘Monster Medley,'” Stofiel said of a compilation of themes from TV series “The Addams Family, The Munsters and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Stofiel, like many of the 206 competitors from around the United States and Canada, had never been to Albuquerque before this week. She’s been impressed by the quality of the meet, West Mesa Aquatic Center and by the city, though she had some reservations about competing in Albuquerque.

“A lot of people were kind of afraid of the altitude,” she said. “At first you’re kind of gasping, but it gets better after a few days.”

Oddly, synchronized swimmers can perform solo, competing in forms and technical events. But group competitions (duets, trios or teams ranging from four to 10 swimmers) seem to have more allure.

“You spend a lot of time together practicing and performing,” Cordova said. “You really form bonds with your teammates.”

Cordova and Miller were a bit surprised to find Albuquerque, a city with no synchronized swimming clubs, hosting the masters nationals. They hope that will no longer be the case if and when the competition returns.

“I really hope this gets a few more people here interested in the sport,” Cordova said. “It reminded me how much I love it.”

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