The moderator gives us a nod, and we walk in unison along the edge of the deep end. “Aaaaaand stop!” comes a call from the rear. We pivot to face the pool and bend and stretch into formation, surrounding our seven-person clump with a sunburst of jazz hands. I feel hundreds of eyes watching us as we wait for the music, smiling in our silver-and-pink swimsuits and glittery eyeliner.
A whistle blows, and “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band explodes from the loudspeakers. We silently count the beats in our heads. I dive on my turn, my teammates fast on my heels, and feel a twinge of pride as my skin breaks the cool surface of the water. My fear of plunging in head-first is one I’ve been working hard to overcome.
The mention of synchronized swimming often calls to mind Hollywood images of the demure toe-pointing and toothpaste smile of Esther Williams or of wiry Olympic athletes with gelled hair and unfortunate eye makeup. For me, as I dive into the water at my second national synchronized-swimming competition, I think of how the sport has challenged my inhibitions and introduced me to a side of myself that I was surprised to meet.
Although I’ve always loved being in the water, before I signed up for a synchronized-swimming class in Rockville, I had never learned to dive—which seemed telling of a larger resistance in my life to letting loose, taking risks, and plunging in. As a thirty-something with no big plans for personal transformation on my horizon, I figured it was all downhill from there. An internal ticking clock reminded me constantly that I was “too old for short shorts,” as my mother would say. I had grown most comfortable in swimsuits of the skirted variety and had started to wonder if my coworker was right when she said there are no good surprises after 30.
Each week, though, when I slipped into the water for class, I felt stronger and sexier—a chimeric morphing of a mermaid and Michael Phelps. The day I swam the length of the pool underwater on a single breath, I felt like I could accomplish anything. After a semester, my classmates encouraged me to join the DC-area synchronized swimming team. I looked for excuses: I wasn’t good enough. I was too busy. Worst of all, I would have to perform in a swimsuit! But a nagging part of me wanted to know if I could make it. So after weeks of deliberation, I went to a practice.
At the pool, I was greeted by a group of energetic, latex-capped women aged 24 to 72. I joined them in the deep end and, at their urging, demonstrated what I had learned—a basic scull, a back layout, a splashy, sinking attempt at raising one pointed leg toward the ceiling. Despite being years ahead of me in their skills, the women on the team graciously offered pointers and encouraged me to keep practicing. Afterwards, everyone headed to the communal shower, and I slunk off to change by myself.
I came back the next week and then the next, the camaraderie and the challenge satisfying needs so submerged I hadn’t even realized they were there. At times, I thought the sport would defeat me—if not with its dizzying upside-down spins then surely the dangerously long stretches between gasps of air. For months I left the four-hour practices with quivering legs and an appetite previously seen only on Animal Planet.
Yet as I pushed my body to its limits, it responded by becoming harder and leaner; my lungs stretched to meet the new demands. As my body changed, something inside me shifted as well. I took to wearing audaciously short shorts. Thanks to my teammates, I learned to dive and conquered my fear of the communal shower. I even bid a public farewell to my skirted granny suit at a nude beach.
But what matters more than feeling good in my skin is that I discovered a side of myself I didn’t know was there—a side that is strong and capable of taking a chance and diving in. Instead of being on the cusp of inevitable decline, I realize I am in charge of my own journey. There are good surprises after thirty.
Vicki Valosik is a Silver Spring-based writer, program officer, and aquaphile. She has written previously for Washingtonian, as well as for TheAtlantic.com, American Scholar, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post Magazine, and Huffington Post, among others. Find her on Twitter or at vickivalosik.net.